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J1 Round 25
Gamba Osaka 3-3 Kashima Antlers

From joy to despair to... relief...?

vsgamba_rnd25.jpg

With the four offensive players maintaining pressure up front, Kashima forced Gamba's sides to retreat back and support their three-man defense line. The resulting space created in the midfield allowed Mitsuo Ogasawara to make good approaches up from defensive midfield.

I scared my neighbors by letting out a loud "YES!" when Ogasawara scored at the 9th minute. Alex Mineiro controlled the cross from Masashi Motoyama and waited a second for the Antlers captain to dash up through the back line. A soft through pass and Ogasawara had the course he needed to take a quick left-footed swipe to the right of goal.

With a whopping 64 goals under their belt this season, and two-thirds of that coming from their offensive triangle (Oguro, Araujo, Fernandinho), it was only a matter of time before Osaka would snap out of their stiffness and squeeze out a goal of their own. After receiving from Fernandinho, left sidehalf Takahiro Futagawa's cross vetoed Masashi Oguro's head and fell perfectly to an open Araujo at the far post for a well-timed volley at 23 minutes. The home side could have made that a double when a counter-attacking Araujo found himself face to face with goalie Hitoshi Sogahata 13 minutes later. But the uncharacteristically hesitant shot was smothered by defender Goh Oiwa.

Ogasawara's free kick five minutes before the end of the first half won his side a valuable lead heading in to the lockerrooms. A low near-horizontal kick from the left of the box zipped past all and curled comfortably to the inside netting untouched.

Upon returning in the second half, Gamba's resurgence was lent a helping hand by goalkeeper Sogahata when he mishandled a back-pass at 51 minutes and assisted forward Oguro to his first goal in four games. Gamba took this as their opportunity to retrieve their rhythm and spirit, and both sides put on a dizzying fast-paced show. Sogahata redeemed himself 20 minutes later when he deflected a shot from Yasuhito Endo in a dangerous one-on-one encounter. Kashima got a few shots of their own, the most promising an Ogasawara through-pass to Takuya Nozawa for a direct effort which was caught by keeper Yohsuke Fujigaya.

Both managers upped their attacking ante with a total five substitutions to their front lines in a span of fifteen minutes. The home team used individual dribbling and technique; the visitors, multi-player overlaps and mid-range shots.

All seemed lost for Kashima when Banpaku stadium erupted in joy at the 89th minute. Oguro caught the ball to the left of goal, and instead of taking the shot himself gave the honors to Araujo. The prolific striker aimed calmly and notched his 27th of the season. Normally composed manager Akira Nishino threw his hands up on the sidelines, relishing this valuable moment over the four-time League Champions.

The story should have ended there. Two minutes of injury time was all the elated home side needed to endure. But here again is Gamba's style -- they remained unwaveringly on the attack.

It was topsy-turvy time, as Antlers centerback Daiki Iwamasa was sent up as a third forward. A long feed from the back dropped to an open area on the left via Iwamasa's pressure in the air. Takayuki Suzuki picked it up. Outnumbering the Gamba defense, it was simple matters for the former Heusden-Zolder lefty to slap the ball over to a waiting Alex Mineiro. A truly dramatic last-minute equalizer.

If any of the supporters had hoped today's match would presage this season's ultimate Champions, they may have been disappointed by the 3-3 scoreline. But with only a point separating the two clubs and nine rounds still remaining, any result tonight would have been a premature indicator. As we head into the homestrech, these two stylish clubs will most surely be in the spotlight.

The Gamba players were NOT happy after the game, giving up their win for a draw like that. In particular I wonder how much Miyamoto's thoughts will influence the team awareness going forward. Should there really have been only TWO defenders in the bottom half of the pitch in the last minute of a winning game? Personally, if I was a Gamba supporter, I'd be pretty ticked by that. Kashima outnumbered Gamba 3 to 2 on that last minute goal. I don't understand what all the other players were thinking. Nishino seemed unperturbed by that allowance, strongly sticking to his party line of being an attacking club. But "attacking" should not mean "unwise".
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