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Latest leaders Gamba trying to hold position

by Andrew McKirdy

Top spot in the J. League has changed hands with every weekend so far this May, but Gamba Osaka will be hoping to make their lead stick after taking over in first place last Saturday.

Gamba beat Sagan Tosu 3-0 to move top of the table for the first time since winning the title in 2014, leading Kashiwa Reysol by a point with 12 rounds played. The fact that only five points separate the top eight teams shows just how fluid the situation currently is, however, and Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa is not about to get carried away by his team’s lofty position.

“I’ve been saying all along that we’re not paying any attention to the table,” Hasegawa said after Saturday’s win. “Of course it’s really good that we’re top, but we’re only a third of the way through the season. We want to just keep going the way we’ve been going, taking each game as it comes.”

Gamba are unbeaten in six games, have lost only once all season and have scored 26 goals and conceded nine. No fewer than 11 different players have netted for Hasegawa’s side, making the temporary unavailability of 18-year-old prodigy Ritsu Doan, who is currently playing for Japan at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, not the drama it might have been.

Striker Shun Nagasawa scored twice on Saturday and Hasegawa’s forward options will soon be boosted by the return of Brazilian Patric, who is returning to fitness following an anterior cruciate ligament suffered last autumn.

“We have players coming back from injury so competition for places among the forwards will increase,” said Hasegawa. “And if they can lead us from the front, I think we can kick on. I’ve got big expectations of them.”

With so many teams breathing down their neck, however, Gamba cannot afford to take their foot off the gas for a second. Reysol have climbed into second on the strength of six straight wins, and manager Takahiro Shimotaira was impressed by how his team handled an unusual incident in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Jubilo Iwata.

With Reysol leading 1-0, referee Koichiro Fukushima pointed to the penalty spot after Jubilo goalkeeper Krzystof Kaminski had appeared to foul forward Kosuke Taketomi. The official then changed his mind and denied Reysol the penalty in the face of furious Jubilo protests, but the visitors eventually had the last laugh.

“For that to happen and then for us to score another goal and get the win, I feel that we have grown as a result of this game,” said Shimotaira. “The players have become trustworthy.”

Expect further twists and turns before the trophy is lifted in December.

At long last

Wagner Lopes has been waiting five years to begin his career as a J. League manager, and the Brazil-born former Japan striker enjoyed every minute of his debut at the helm of Albirex Niigata on Saturday.

Lopes, who was denied the chance to manage Gamba Osaka in 2012 due to his lack of a license, took over at Albirex earlier this month and immediately led them to only their second win of the season, 1-0 at home to Consadole Sapporo.

“I’ve been waiting for this chance for a long time, so there was happiness, frustration and a desire to win,” said the 48-year-old, who played for Japan at the 1998 World Cup.

“I want to put all my energy into the things that I’m capable of doing. The players really listened to my instructions and carried them out well. Isn’t it great that I could get my first win in this fantastic stadium in front of these fantastic supporters? It’s a dream come true.”

Triple trouble

Urawa Reds striker Shinzo Koroki may have scored his second hat trick of the season on Saturday, but even that was not enough to deliver victory for his inconsistent team.

Koroki struck three times to take his league-leading tally to 11 goals for the season, but Shimizu S-Pulse matched him all the way in a 3-3 draw at Saitama Stadium.

“We went ahead and didn’t really look in much danger,” said Koroki, who took his scoring tally into double figures for the sixth straight season.

“We went into halftime 1-0 up and then scored again, and at that point it looked like we might run up a big score. But it’s not good to let your mind slip like that. I think we’ve got a lot to work on.”

Quotable

“He’s been putting in a lot of work in training, getting on the end of crosses to the near post. I never thought he would get the chance to do it in a game but sure enough it happened and he put it away first time. His hard work paid off.”

Kashiwa Reysol manager Takahiro Shimotaira pays tribute to Hiroto Nakagawa, after the 155-cm midfielder scored with a header in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Jubilo Iwata.