SUITA, OSAKA PREF. - Kashima Antlers crashed Gamba Osaka’s house party with a 1-0 victory in the J. League on Sunday, 19-year-old Yuma Suzuki coming off the bench to score the lone goal midway through the second half.
Including Gamba, eight of the nine clubs at home lost on the opening weekend of J1. Sagan Tosu, who beat Avispa Fukuoka 2-1 on Saturday, were the only team to avoid embarrassment.
Sunday’s defeat cost Gamba three points and Japan defender Daiki Niwa, who broke his collarbone in the first half. No timetable was set for his return, although it appears certain he will miss next month’s World Cup qualifiers at home to Syria and Afghanistan.
Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa lamented the injury but did not use it as an excuse, blaming himself for the loss.
“Whenever the pillar of your defense faces a spell on the sidelines, it’s not good,” Hasegawa said. “But the result today does not hinge on Daiki. Our performance didn’t tail off because he was replaced.
“The boys played their hearts out. I’m embarrassed with myself for not being able to lead us to victory on a special day like today. Their substitutions paid off and ours didn’t.
“It’s on me because I’m the one who makes the substitutions.”
Gamba have scored just once in their three games this season in the Xerox Super Cup, Asian Champions League and now the J. League.
“It’s always difficult to come up with the goals at this time of the year,” Hasegawa said. “Also, we’ve played (Sanfrecce) Hiroshima, Suwon (Samsung FC) and Kashima so far, and they’re not easy teams to score against.”
The day’s only top-flight action was worthy of the first league match at Gamba’s new home, Suita Stadium, marked by a physicality often unseen in Japan as two title favorites slugged it out before a sellout crowd of 32,463.
Niwa became a victim of that aggressiveness on the half-hour, when he landed awkwardly on his right shoulder after a collision and had to be stretchered off.
As both sides refused to give anything away, the hosts went close in the 41st minute, when Ademilson set up Jungo Fujimoto on the edge of the box for a completely free shot that came off the bar.
Ademilson, who turned in a man-of-the-match caliber performance, linked again with Fujimoto six minutes past the hour, sending his teammate through on the counterattack.
But rather than challenge Kashima goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogahata one-on-one, Fujimoto hesitated — allowing the defense to get back — and wasted the opportunity.
Moments later, Hasegawa inserted Takashi Usami from the bench with hopes the Japan international would galvanize the attack. Instead, the visitors drew first blood.
In the 72nd minute, Kashima substitute Caio created with a soft cross from the right by-line for another man off the bench, Suzuki, who soared into close range, nodding the ball into the back of the net to give Masatada Ishii’s side the three points.
Antlers looked fit and convincing, justifying their preseason tag as championship contenders.
“Caio did most of the work and he sent in a great cross so all I had to do was touch it,” said Suzuki, who has three goals in just eight career appearances. “To me, the three points is what matters. Winning three points is far more important than whether I score or not.”