OSAKA – Gamba Osaka beat Jeonbuk Motors in a 3-2 thriller at Osaka’s Expo Stadium on Wednesday night to set up an Asian Champions League semifinal against Chinese heavyweights Guangzhou Evergrande, ensuring Japan will have a representative in Asia’s premier club competition’s final four.
A 94th-minute goal by Koki Yonekura saved Gamba after Urko Vera scored what looked like it would be the deciding away-goal equalizer in the 88th.
The late flurry followed a 76th-minute goal by Shu Kurata that put the hosts ahead after Jeonbuk fought hard to maintain a 1-1 deadlock. Gamba’s Patric had earlier canceled out Leonardo’s early penalty for Jeonbuk.
Gamba’s late-game hero Yonekura said after the match that despite being left out of the starting line-up, he was ready to fight when called upon.
“We had no choice but to attack at the end and the fans really pushed us on,” he said.
“We gave it everything we had and you could feel the determination to get through to the next round both on and off the pitch.”
Appearing in the ACL quarterfinals for the first time since 2008 — the year they went on to beat Adelaide United 5-0 to win the title — Kenta Hasegawa’s Gamba team overcame the loss of suspended J. League top-scorer Takashi Usami.
The game started with Jeonbuk forward Lee Keun-ho having a headed goal disallowed after three minutes when referee Mohammed Hassan judged Lee shoved a defender in the back to free himself.
Gamba then went one down after 13 minutes when Daiki Niwa was ruled to have used his hand to stop a Park Won Jae shot in the penalty area. Replays showed Niwa was very unlucky to have the ruling and yellow card go against him, but Leonardo felt no pity, stepping to the spot and making it 1-0.
Patric leveled the score a minute later with an easy tap-in from in front when a Jeonbuk offside trap went horribly wrong, leaving Hiroyuki Abe to corral the ball and feed the big Brazilian for the simple goal.
Patric missed a great opportunity to put the home team ahead in the 36th minute. After absorbing some extended pressure Gamba broke out with three excellent passes putting the ball at a streaking Patric’s feet, but the 27-year-old could only direct a weak shot directly at Jeonbuk goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-te.
The second half began quietly, with Gamba gaining the upper hand as the period progressed. Jeonbuk, with its nose ahead due to the away-goal lead, began sitting back in the hopes of holding onto the advantage, and Gamba did themselves no favors by wasting some good build-up play on a number of occasions.
But then Kurata broke the game open for Gamba.
His long-range attempt took a slight deflection of the back of a Jeonbuk defender and flew into the net, leaving Kwoun flat-footed and with no chance at making a save.
A weak header from Vera made it 2-2 — an attempt that Gamba goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi should have at least gotten a hand on.
But it didn’t matter as Yonekura saved the day, somehow placing his shot past Kwoun after it looked like he may not be able to get the ball out from under his feet.
Japanese treble winners Gamba, currently sitting in fifth on the J. League second stage table, will now meet Guangzhou on Sept. 30 in the ACL semifinal first leg.
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