Thursday 28 June 2012

Wenger's protege makes his point at Gamba

With the Euros waning into insignificance with the elimination of England, and the 'much-fancied' Russia (okay, I admit it was me who backed the 20/1 shots to lift the trophy), I thought it was time to wander into a world where football is still played with passion and skill.

Watching Gamba Osaka play is something akin to watching Arsenal, as I've mentioned to netizens before with all the accompanying frustration and joy. And what could be better than watching Arsene Wenger's old club, Nagoya Grampus, take on the mighty Asian Champions League perennials? Except, this year, Gamba's place amongst Asia's elite is under threat. A poor start to the season has drizzled all over optimistic fans expecting a third-placed finish. Instead, fifth will suffice. Mmm, sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?

Thanks to Alan Gibson of JSoccer Magazine, I was fortunate enough to meet Gamba's very approachable president, Mr Kikuo Kanamori. I also managed to see what happens in the Curva Nord, which is the place occupied by Gamba's most vociferous supporters or 'ultras'. Not content with just vocally getting behind their team, they even throw in some synchronised dancing when the team scores. It hasn't been happening as much as it normally does this season, so the dancers have been taking an unwelcome break. But the singing goes on regardless. I have to say that, for some Twitter twit claimed that the fans were barracking the team after falling behind to an early strike. How wrong can anyone possibly be?

Inevitably, it was Josh Kennedy who set up the goal, with his head, to put Kensuke Nagai on the scoresheet. The same combination struck again as Nagoya raced into a two-goal lead after just 18 minutes. Yet, there was no sign of any heckling from the Gamba supporters. A bit of consternation perhaps when some passes went astray, but that was it. The boys with the megaphones continued to cattle-prod Gamba's ever-willing followers into injecting some much-needed confidence into a nervous-looking team.

The 'ultras' had the opposite effect on me, I must confess, as Alan accidentally led me into a private members' area of the terraces. While he disappeared into a throng of noisy blue-and-black shirted fans, I wondered if my face would end up black and blue too for having the temerity to cross a line I didn't know existed. A tough-looking fan with dark glasses told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn't pass. 'No', he said, as he barred my way. While I waited for Alan to return, I looked along the terraces and saw that some standing areas had seats. Not the most comfortable looking ones, I must admit. The sort of seat that might make you sing out in pain. No doubt, Gamba's planned new stadium will have 'none of that sort', as Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood once said of the Gunners' majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke. We'll have to wait until 2014 to find out if my guess is correct about seating arrangement in Osaka's proposed new stadium (see photo above). 

And will Gamba's new stadium improve results? Well, even in the old stadium, they need to improve fast. If not, Gamba's new 36,000-capacity ground (which could hold up to 40,000 if the president gets his way) could be hosting J2 matches. Luckily for Gamba, the club appear to be in capable hands off-the-field, at least. President Kanamori-san has never been fearful of addressing the fans and, likewise, they are not afraid to voice their opinions. Right now, they're of the opinion that something must be done soon to arrest the decline. Masanobu Matsunami's transition from assistant manager to manager has been less smooth than it might have been. The legendary outgoing boss, Akira Nishino, has cast a bigger shadow over his successor than is healthy for Gamba. It was almost inevitable, given Nishino's success, that this would happen (although fans of the Liverpool bootroom dynasty may beg to differ!). To make matters worse, Nishino has pitched up just down the road at Vissel Kobe, transforming Gamba's 'little brother' into a respectable mid-table team. Meanwhile, the dark cloud of past glories will hover over Gamba, until they shake off the threat of relegation. No matter how hard the ultras sing, the hard work has to be done on the pitch and, miraculously, some of it came to fruition against Nagoya.

'On a wing and prayer' is a phrase that came to mind, as Gamba clawed their way back into the game with a hotly-disputed Sota Nakazawa diving header. Grampus were furious that Nakazawa was ruled onside, but their protests were futile.

When Takahiro Futagawa equalised with just 15 minutes left on the clock, the Nishino cloud was temporarily lifted by a grateful euphoria which swept around the stadium. Yet Gamba so nearly surrendered even that, with goalkeeper Yosuke Fujigaya rescuing the home side late on as Grampus went on to almost score from a counter attack. Fujigaya saved with his feet and the points were shared.

Would a point be considered enough for Grampus boss Dragan 'Piksi' Stojkovic? He seemed mildly disappointed when he spoke at the post-match press conference: 'It seems like we dropped two points, but I think we played very well in the first half and Gamba played very well in the second half. This is my first impression.

'It's a problem for Gamba why they don't win at home. We tired in the second half.

'We were very close to scoring the third goal when we played with three strikers: Tulio, Yuki Maki and Kennedy, and we were very close to losing. Anything can happen in the last few minutes. 2-2 is a good result. Away against Gamba, no problem.

Gamba's first goal looked a tad offside and on that very subject, Pixie commented diplomatically on the decision: 'A kind of mystery to me, from my position.'

Later, he privately confessed: 'He [the referee's assistant] told me he didn't see it. Why are you allowed to play if you don't see the situation? I accept the mistake but don't tell me you don't see it. It's a big advantage for the home team.

'From my position, I saw my players go up and protest, even (Seigo) Narazake my goalkeeper, who is very calm. He started to explain to the referee.

'At half-time, 2-0 and 2-1 are very different scorelines. The 2-1 scoreline and this goal gave Gamba hope. But the problem is my team. We have to be cleverer and more intelligent to score five goals and finish the game.

'I thought it was offside but the linesman said: “No see, no see”. Sometimes, it's difficult to control emotions. The game is a passion. You cannot be calm and sit on the bench. I need to express my feelings.

'The most important thing for the officials is half-time. In the last game, we played 4 minutes additional time against Jubilo Iwata at the end of the first half because the goalkeeper broke his finger.

'After a few minutes [in the dressing room] they [the officials] said 'time'. Why? For television. But TV has to respect the game. If [Joshua] Kennedy needs to go the toilet, what can I do?'

Piksi admitted Grampus's problems may be exacerbated by absentees: 'I think Kensuke Nagai will go to London. Keiji Tamada had an operation today and will be out for 3 months.'

However, Piksi could still spare a thought for his opponents: ''Gamba are in trouble. If we had played 10 percent better - easy. They need something in front.'

Whatever Gamba needs, they need it soon or they will face at least one season in J2. And neither the fans, the president, nor the players deserve such a fate.

Meanwhile, Piksi deserves the challenge of the English Premier League and perhaps, one day, he will follow in the footsteps of his former Grampus mentor, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.

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