ANALYSIS: Cerezo flying high, Gamba struggling ahead of Osaka Derby

Throughout much of the J.League’s recent history, Gamba Osaka have always been among top-ranked title contenders, while Cerezo Osaka have struggled near the bottom of the table or even in the J2. But the situation started to change in 2017, when Cerezo lifted their first trophies in club history in the form of two national cups, while Gamba failed to win a single match after announcing the year-end departure of manager Kenta Hasegawa.

In 2018 the state of affairs has continued to favour the pink side of the city, which dreams of more honours, while the blue and black side cannot think of anything else than escaping from the relegation zone. All of this adds up to even more intensity than usual for the upcoming Osaka Derby, one of the fiercest rivalries in the country.

Last Saturday, Cerezo put their three-game winning streak on the line against FC Tokyo, who themselves had won four straight, with a place in the top three at stake. But the hosts struggled as the visitors from the capital had the upper hand at various moments, with a 55% possession rate and some chances to capitalise that sadly went wasted.

Playing with reactive style introduced by the South Korean manager Yoon Jung-hwan, Cerezo had less time on the ball, but defended well and still created more dangerous situations than their opponents. Yet they still needed a bizarre mistake from Tokyo’s defence to score the lone goal of the match as captain Jang Hyun-soo and goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi clumsily failed to clear an easy ball, leaving the goal wide open for Toshiyuki Takagi to strike home.

Akira Nishino must have been impressed by Hotaru Yamaguchi, who fared well when defending and showcased his skills with his one-touch passes and created chances up front. Conversely, the new Samurai Blue boss must not have been satisfied with Kenyu Sugimoto, who would not deserve a rating above 6.0 and hardly threatened Tokyo’s defenders.

Hiroshi Kiyotake, recovered from a calf injury which took him away from the beginning of the season, entered the pitch in the 82nd minute, replacing man of the match Takagi, and almost put his name in the scoresheet with a clever effort from a trick play that was saved by Hayashi. It was a wasted chance to impress in front of Nishino.

Also worth mentioning was the solid defensive display from centre-back Yasuki Kimoto, who contributed to Cerezo’s first clean sheet of the season. For Tokyo, defensive midfielder Kento Hashimoto was the only positive, defending firmly and not granting space to the front duo of Sugimoto and Kakitani.

As Cerezo climbed to third place in the standings, Gamba wasted a golden opportunity to escape from the bottom of the table. In Round 7, Levir Culpi’s men finally earned their first win of the J1 campaign by beating Júbilo Iwata 2-0 in Suita Stadium, and the side was also coming from two 4-1 victories in the Levain Cup. Despite playing away in Kyushu, supporters were certainly expecting three more points against V-Varen Nagasaki, who this year are debuting in the J1 and considered sure relegation candidates with their modest roster.

But Gamba looked far from favourites on the pitch, and it was in fact the 2014 champions who looked more likely to drop with a disastrous error-filled display lacking movement or team play. V-Varen won 3-0 for the first time since beating Fagiano Okayama 3-0 on May 3 2017. The final score was not 4-0 only because Spanish forward Juanma missed a clear chance, hitting the post from point-blank range with an open goal in front of him.

It was a historic achievement for the Nagasaki side, who are now in 13th place after two consecutive wins. Gamba are still in last, with the league’s the worst defence (15 goals conceded) and only four points to their credit. That number is less than the seven they had after eight rounds in 2012, the year they were relegated. Will the Osaka Derby change this situation or reconfirm Cerezo’s recent domination over Kansai?