The notion of Gamba Osaka winning the 2014 J. League title was laughable when the club went into the World Cup break in the relegation zone, but after lifting the trophy on Saturday it is difficult to deny they deserved it.
Newly promoted Gamba put together an astonishing run of form over the second half of the season to go from 16th to the sharp end of the title race, steadily reeling in front-runners Urawa Reds before clinching the silverware on the final day. Urawa’s shaky mental resolve undoubtedly played its part, but Gamba’s momentum was so strong that any team standing in their way had little chance of escaping unscathed.
“We were coming from the bottom to the top, so we didn’t have the kind of pressure on us in every game that Urawa did, which helped us,” said Gamba’s Kotaro Omori. “We started to feel that we weren’t going to lose.”
It is no surprise that Gamba’s turnaround coincided with the return from injury of star forward Takashi Usami. The 22-year-old was instrumental in helping Gamba win 15 of their final 20 games, and can consider his decision to cut short a frustrating stint in Europe to return to the club last year a wise one.
It cannot have been easy for Usami to swallow his pride and play in J2 having been named among Bayern Munich’s substitutes for the 2012 Champions League final, but the forward is now in a better position to try again having rebuilt his reputation, and other young players whose careers have drifted in Europe would do well to note his example.
Of course Gamba were far from just a one-man team, and the arrival of striker Patric in May had arguably just as big an impact. Patric was a competent if unspectacular presence last year with Ventforet Kofu, but the Brazilian has thrived alongside better players at Gamba and has brought a physical edge that many sides just cannot live with.
That reflects a more pragmatic approach under manager Kenta Hasegawa in contrast to the free-scoring but defensively profligate decade-long reign of Akira Nishino. It is difficult to imagine the goalkeeper of one of Nishino’s teams being named the fans’ player of the year as Masaaki Higashiguchi was this season, but then no Nishino team conceded as few goals in the current league format as the 31 on Hasegawa’s watch.
“We start defending the moment we lose the ball, so it’s not just the defenders but the strikers too,” said Hasegawa. “We’ve become a team with the right balance between attack and defense.”
Hasegawa spoke on Saturday about the importance of making the most of his players’ talents, and his decision to restore erstwhile defender Yasuyuki Konno to midfield alongside league MVP Yasuhito Endo proved a masterstroke. The two national team veterans formed the base that allowed Usami and Patric to flourish, and there could have been no better response to a difficult World Cup campaign for both players.
Gamba, however, are not finished yet. Saturday’s Emperor’s Cup final against Montedio Yamagata offers the chance to complete a remarkable treble having already claimed the league and Nabisco Cup titles, and a season that once looked doomed to failure threatens to exceed even the most optimistic expectations.
After a year in the second division, Gamba’s rehabilitation is emphatically complete.