ACL preview: Gamba Osaka v Melbourne Victory

With a key defensive injury and two attacking stars rested in the J-League over the weekend, what can Victory expect from Gamba Osaka?  Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden has the inside word.

Following Saturday’s thrilling Big Blue, reigning Hyundai A-League champions Melbourne Victory hit the road to play Gamba Osaka.

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After their impressive 2-1 win over Shanghai SIPG in matchday 1 last week, can the Big V back it up in Japan on Wednesday night?

Well, like Victory, Gamba Osaka are of the most successful teams in recent years.

The first title came in 2005 and then came the AFC Champions League in 2008 and that dismantling of Adelaide United in the final.

There has been something of a roller-coaster of late. From 2004 to 2011, the team finished outside the top three just once but then in 2012, out of nowhere, came relegation.

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Not to worry, the Kansai club won the J2, and then, in its first season back in the big time came a second league title.

2014 brought a runners-up spot and a playoff final defeat at the hands of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, probably the right result as over the season as a whole as Hiroshima were the standout team.

There is still much to like about Gamba. Kenta Hasegawa was the long-term coach of Shimizu S-Pulse and came to Gamba in 2013.

Watch Out For

Takashi Usami. Perhaps the most exciting player in Japan, the 23 year-old attacker has been top-class since returning from Germany in 2013 (his move to Bayern Munich in 2011 was too much, too soon) and has not stopped scoring.

He can play in the middle, on either side or behind the striker, but is likely to start on the left side of the three players who line up behind Patric though is liable to drift inside.

Fast, direct with excellent close control, Usami is a real handful though has still yet to show his best for the national team.

Takashi Usami

Gamba’s strengths and weaknesses

In Patric, Gamba have a forward of power to add some steel to the silky style of recent years and with the Brazilian and Usami, there is a real twin goal-scoring threat.

Gamba can keep the ball well, counter-attack very well and have two full-backs that like to get forward and are capable of getting behind defences.

There are issues defensively, even with Niwa the defence could struggle against powerful opponents and now he is out, Gamba are looking a little vulnerable.

And in the absence of Endo, there looks to be a lack of leadership on the pitch.

If and when things start to go wrong, who will step up and take control?

Hasegawa looks set to establish a dynasty to rival the ten-year reign of the popular Akira Nishina who led the team from 2002 to 2012 and turned it into a powerhouse.

Hasegawa ran out of ideas at the end of the long spell at Shimizu but has brought almost constant success to the club as he starts his fourth season.

Promotion in 2013; the title in 2014; second in 2015 and a successive Emperor’s Cup and a semi-final spot in the AFC Champions League.

The former international still follows the traditional Gamba pass and move groove that was as its peak in 2008, but there is more of a willingness to mix it up now.

Gamba Osaka boss Kenta Hasegawa.

Compared to the Gamba of the past, this is a team that can go route one when necessary and did so against Suwon Bluewings in the opening match last week.

In that match, Gamba were delighted and a little lucky to escape the Korea Republic with a 0-0 draw.

The coach made no apologies for playing more defensively. The formation is 4-2-3-1 but there are times when it is attack-minded and times when the emphasis shifts towards defence.

The formation is the same but often ‘defensive Gamba’ take the pitch, and sometimes it is the ‘offensive’ version.

At the weekend, Gamba kicked off the league season with a 1-0 loss at home to Kashima Antlers in their brand new stadium.

Worryingly for Victory, the two star attackers Patric and Takashi Usami were rested which suggests that Gamba are going to be aggressive.

Midfield legend Yasuhito Endo did start and at the age of 36, that means that he is likely to start on the bench.

The coach said last week that the 2008 winner can’t play at weekends and midweek.

Gamba Osaka.

In Patric’s absence, new signing Ademilson started and while he wasn’t so effective in terms of goals, the Brazilian did help three Kashima players pick up yellow cards.

Something for Kevin Muscat to think about.

There is a problem, however. Against Kashima, centre-back Daiki Niwa broke his collerbone.

This takes the team’s main physical presence out of the backline. Yasuyuki Konno moved back from midfield to fill the gap but if Endo does not start, taking another veteran out of the middle may be risky for the coach.

This may force a more cautious approach than would otherwise have been the case.