Gamba Osaka surpassed all expectations by winning the treble last season, but manager Kenta Hasegawa believes there is still room for improvement in 2015.
Gamba returned to the top flight last year after a season in the second division, but their stay among the elite looked set to be short-lived when the club found itself in the relegation zone as the league shut down for the World Cup.
When play resumed in July, however, something suddenly clicked. Gamba put together an astonishing run of results that ended with captain Yasuhito Endo lifting the league trophy, and success in both the Nabisco Cup and Emperor’s Cup crowned an unforgettable season.
Topping last year’s achievements is undeniably a tall order — especially with Asian Champions League commitments adding to the workload — but Hasegawa believes his team is capable of more success over the coming season.
“This year we want to defend our J. League title and win in Asia,” Hasegawa told The Japan Times ahead of Gamba’s season-opener at home to FC Tokyo on Saturday. “The start of last season was difficult but then we ended up winning three titles. We were in the relegation zone but the team was not playing so badly, and I knew that if we could start winning after the World Cup break then we could start climbing the table.
“The players became aware of the danger they were in with regards to our position. We were 16th and the players knew that we were in trouble. The players put in a lot of effort during the World Cup break.”
The arrival of imposing target man Patric during that time also helped spark Gamba into life, with the Brazilian striking up an instant rapport with forward Takashi Usami. Usami and Patric went on to score 36 goals between them in all competitions, and Hasegawa expects even more from the pair this season.
“We signed Patric during the World Cup break, and he fitted in very well with the team,” said Hasegawa. “That was a big factor.
“They (Patric and Usami) combined very well and gelled more and more the more games they played together. Because of that, I want them to play at an even higher level this season.”
The campaign was a personal triumph in particular for Usami, who left the club to join German giants Bayern Munich in 2011 only to return two years later with Gamba in the second division.
An early-season injury last year meant Usami had to watch from the sidelines as Gamba struggled to reacclimatize to the top flight, but the 22-year-old made up for lost time when he entered the fray in late April.
“We were able to achieve something as a team, so it was a good season,” said Usami. “When I was injured, I was thinking all the time about coming back to help the team — what I could do to make a contribution. This season, my minimum target is to score 20 goals.”
Usami’s success was not enough to convince then-national team manager Javier Aguirre of his worth, however, with the Mexican consistently ignoring the forward’s claims for a call-up. Aguirre’s decision to leave Usami out of Japan’s squad for the Asian Cup in January prompted much scratching of heads, but the player himself took it as a message to work harder.
“Individually I just wasn’t good enough,” said Usami. “If I had achieved much more than I actually did, then I think I would have been called up. I think I am capable of growing a lot more as a player.
“I watched the games. It was frustrating, but I was the only one responsible for my situation. It was a good chance for me to realize that I have to do more if I want to represent my country on a stage like that.”
Usami and Patric were not Gamba’s only stars, however, with Endo and Yasuyuki Konno dominating in midfield and a defense once known for its profligacy conceding only 31 goals.
“Endo and Konno gave the team great stability,” said Hasegawa. “When the going got tough, they stepped up and helped us out. Konno is injured for the start of the new season, but I think the team will be able to come together and fill the hole that he leaves behind.
“I don’t think I did anything in particular with the defense. When I took over, everyone helped out and little by little things improved. Over the whole season we conceded fewer goals than in previous years.”
And as for Hasegawa himself, last season provided a note of personal vindication. The 49-year-old lost three cup finals during his spell in charge of Shimizu S-Pulse from 2005-11, but that ghost has now been emphatically laid to rest.
“I don’t think I was good enough yet as a manager,” said Hasegawa. “I got to three finals — two Emperor’s Cups and one Nabisco Cup — and I didn’t win any of them. I think that was down to my shortcomings as a manager.”
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