KASHIMA, IBARAKI PREF. – No Takashi Usami, no problem.
Gamba Osaka laid down the gauntlet to the J. League first-stage champions with a controlled 3-1 victory at Kashima Antlers as the second stage got underway on Saturday.
Kotaro Omori, Yasuyuki Konno and Kim Jungya scored for the 2014 Japanese treble winners, who sold Japan striker Usami after the first stage to Bundesliga club Augsburg last week.
Yet without their prolific scorer, Gamba found a way to beat Kashima away in the league for the third straight season. Shuhei Akasaki drew first blood for Antlers, who were shorthanded themselves with the team’s top scorer Mu Kanazaki injured and Caio finalizing his transfer to the United Arab Emirates with Al Ain.
“For as long as I’ve been in this league, Antlers to me have always been the real champions, the team to beat,” Konno said. “Beating them in Kashima is never easy, so to take all three points off them here is a massive result.
“This win will go a long way. It’s a real confidence-booster for us.”
Antlers manager Masatada Ishii admitted not having Kanazaki and Caio, who combined for 13 of the club’s 29 goals in the first stage, impacted their performance.
“We wanted to put on the kind of performances that won us the first stage, but unfortunately we couldn’t,” said Ishii, who expects Kanazaki to be back for next weekend’s away tie to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“We became a little too conservative after going up. With Mu and Caio out, my job was to get the most out of who we had available. Everyone has their qualities, but I couldn’t come up with a way to extract the best out of our players.”
Kashima, which held off Kawasaki Frontale by a single point to win the first stage, enjoyed the better start to the match, Akasaki testing the reflexes of Japan goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi in the ninth minute with a blast from the edge of the box.
Gamba, who were never in the first-stage title race, finishing sixth, 15 points off Antlers’ pace, countered on the quarter-hour, when Yasuhito Endo set up Admilson for a free header that narrowly missed the target.
Akasaki capitalized on the next opportunity he saw after 23 minutes, opening the scoring as well as his season account by netting from a low Shuto Yamamoto cross.
But the hosts’ lead lasted all of three minutes, as Omori leveled for Gamba with his first strike of 2016 ahead of the interval.
Gamba went ahead on the hour from a right-wing Endo corner, the former Japan midfielder curling for the far post for his once international teammate Konno, who was unmarked in nodding into the net.
Endo continued to wreak havoc with another corner in the 73rd minute. This time from the left flag, Endo picked out Kim, who had plenty of room to head past ‘keeper Hitoshi Sogahata for Gamba’s critical third.
Gamba boss Kenta Hasegawa was pleased as the former Asian champions made the perfect start to the second half of the campaign.
“I’m really happy to get this win against the first-stage champions. The boys were absolutely determined to beat Antlers,” Hasegawa said. “We managed to score a second and third from the set piece, but I thought it was the first goal that got us going and allowed us to be aggressive.”
“Now the question for us is whether we can keep this up, and I hope we can at home the next time out,” he said, referring to next Saturday’s game against Vegalta Sendai.
In other J1 games, Kawasaki thrashed Sendai 3-0 away, while Urawa Reds edged Avispa 2-1 in Fukuoka.
Sagan manager Massimo Ficcadenti defeated his old team FC Tokyo at the death, Yohei Toyoda giving Tosu a 3-2 home win in the 95th minute, a minute after Kei Ikeda equalized for the hosts.
Hiroshima thumped Jubilo Iwata 3-0 at home, and Yokohama F. Marinos beat Shonan Bellmare away by the same scoreline. Ardija triumphed 1-0 over Nagoya Grampus in Omiya, with Kashiwa Reysol also winning 1-0 at home against Albirex Niigata.
Vissel Kobe outclassed Ventforet 3-0 in Kofu behind a first-half brace by Leandro.