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Rudderless Gamba pay heavy toll for strategic mistakes


Staff Writer

Gamba Osaka’s relegation to the second division feels no less shocking now that the dust has settled, but after spending only five weeks of the season outside the bottom three, perhaps the writing was on the wall all along.

Gamba, J. League champions in 2005 and Asian Champions League winners three years later, fell through the trapdoor after a 2-1 defeat to Jubilo Iwata on Saturday, ending the club’s unbroken top-flight record despite finishing the season as the division’s top scorers. Relegation is a cruel turn of events for a team that had finished outside the top three only once in the previous eight campaigns, but in truth Gamba have contributed to their own downfall with a series of costly missteps.

First came the decision last winter to release not only manager Akira Nishino — who won every domestic trophy available during his decade in charge — but also a raft of players including South Korean striker Lee Keun Ho, who was last week named Asian player of the year after winning the ACL with Ulsan Hyundai. Strikers Leandro and Akihiro Ienaga gave Gamba a much-needed shot of quality when they arrived over the summer, but the team’s defensive problems were never fully addressed and a final tally of 65 goals conceded tells its own story.

Gamba also blundered in the hiring of Brazilian manager Jose Carlos Serrao, whose role as a mentor to assistant Wagner Lopes ended in dismissal just three games into the season. That still allowed replacement Masanobu Matsunami plenty of time to turn things around, however, and after spending his entire playing career with the club and serving as an assistant to Nishino, the 38-year-old’s lack of previous managerial experience cannot excuse his failure to keep the team in the top flight.

Now Gamba must face up to a first-ever season in the second division, where trips to Kataller Toyama and Matsumoto Yamaga will offer a vastly different experience for a team accustomed to fighting for the title each year. On a more positive note, the last two J. League champions — Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Kashiwa Reysol — have both spent time in J2 within the last four years, and it may well be that a season away from the spotlight gives Gamba the perfect chance to regroup and come back stronger.

With the wounds from Saturday’s relegation still raw, however, that is unlikely to provide much consolation at the moment.

Five teams went into Saturday’s final afternoon with designs on the Asian Champions League-qualifying spot that comes with finishing third, but at the end of the day it was Urawa Reds coming through to clinch a return to the tournament they won in 2007.

Reds began the day needing to beat Nagoya Grampus and hope that Sagan Tosu and Kashiwa Reysol would be unable to match their result, and the Saitama side fulfilled its end of the bargain with a 2-0 win while Sagan lost 1-0 to Yokohama F. Marinos and Reysol slumped 2-0 against Kashima Antlers.

“The fans were telling us throughout the game what the other scores were from their mobile phones,” said midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi, who scored Urawa’s first goal.

“We knew that if we won and Kashiwa and Sagan both drew then we’d still be OK. Kashiwa was losing 2-0 so it was difficult for them, and I was just hoping that Marinos would keep fighting against Sagan. All we could do was pray.”

Kashima Antlers headed into Saturday’s game against Kashiwa Reysol still coming to terms with the news that manager Jorginho would not be returning next season, and it was with a heavy heart that the World Cup winner addressed the media after his side’s 2-0 win.

Jorginho, who succeeded fellow Brazilian Oswaldo Oliveira at the start of this season, cited family reasons for his departure, ending the latest chapter in his love affair with the club that he served with distinction as a player from 1995-98.

“There is no problem with life in Kashima,” said Jorginho, who led Antlers to the Nabisco Cup title last month. “As a player and as a coach I have always found the club’s facilities and support to be first-class. The reason why I am stepping down is simply that I need to be with my family.

“The timing means that all the members of my family need to be together right now. But I am not leaving here forever.”

Quotable: “Everything we practiced on the training ground came off on the pitch.”

— FC Tokyo midfielder Takuji Yonemoto explains his side’s 6-2 win over Vegalta Sendai on Saturday.