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Writer's Chat: Gamba Osaka vs Suwon Bluewings Preview

On Tuesday night Suwon and Osaka square off in a must win encounter that promises excitement. With Suwon 3 points behind 2nd placed Melbourne a victory is essential otherwise they will be effectively eliminated from this year's Asian Champions League. And with Gamba languishing a point behind Suwon they must win or their elimination will be confirmed if Melbourne can claim a point on their trip to China. K League United's Scott Whitelock had a chat with J League Regista's Stuart about Gamba's poor start to the season and Suwon's midfield dangers.

Scott Asks, Stuart Answers

Scott: We know that Gamba Osaka haven't played very well in the Champions League so far, but what has their recent league form been like?

Stauart: It hasn’t been so different in the league, especially at home. Their fantastic new stadium was meant to be the catalyst for them to go on and build a dynasty, but it hasn’t really worked out that way for them so far. They’re coming off back-to-back home losses and they’ve been deserved defeats. They currently sit in 8th place in the league, well off the pacesetters with three wins and four defeats from their seven encounters so far. They’re just having an underwhelming season thus far.

Scott: Gamba Osaka entered this group stage as one of the favourites to win the competition. Do the fans feel let down by their performances and is there still any hope that they might qualify from this group?

Stuart: The supporters still seem to have a little bit of hope, but there is a realization that the team simply isn’t playing well enough at this moment in time. Home defeats sap confidence more than away ones, and the optimism that Gamba had going into this new stadium seems to evaporate by the week. The supporters are known in Japan as being some of the most vocal and that’s good when you’re playing well & winning, but when it is going like it is now then it doesn’t make for a good atmosphere. Having to rely on results elsewhere adds another layer of pessimism into the equation.

Scott: In the first game between these teams Osaka played very defensively and attempted to hit Suwon on the counter attack. Can Suwon still expect this style of play?

Stuart: I don’t think so. Gamba can be a patient team but they are not, and never have been, a team that be a competent, defensive team. That’s not to say that they don’t have good defenders - they do. But the DNA of Gamba is to go forward, and with the situation they’re in in the group, it would be highly counter-productive to go defensive. I think they’ll put as many attacking players as they can sensibly fit on the pitch on and see where that takes them.

Scott: On paper, Osaka's biggest threat appears to be that of Takashi Usami. Is this really the case? If not, who should Suwon be wary of?

Stuart: Usami is the shining light of this Gamba Osaka side and if they are to hurt Suwon in any way then he has to play well. Usami is one of those players that is experienced beyond his years, coming back from difficult spells with Bayern Munich & Hoffenheim in Germany with a renewed focus and determination. He had a stellar year last year, notching 19 league goals as Gamba ended up just missing out on the title in the J.League Championship game, but this year has started slowly. It won’t be too long before he hits his stride as he is too good a player to be kept down for a long period of time & Suwon should hope that it isn’t this game that gets him on track. He tends to float around the frontline, popping up in the centre and on the left making him difficult to pick up or track. He looks languid at times, but he has a vicious turn of acceleration on him as well as being comfortable on either foot. When it all comes together, there aren’t that many better Japanese players to watch.

Aside from Usami himself, much was made in pre-season of his potential combination with Brazilian pair Patric & Ademilson. Patric is an old school striker: big, strong and not very fancy, but he gets the job done thanks to a good footballing brain and sheer power. On the other hand he’s one of those players that can lose his cool when things aren’t going his way, and you feel he is never too far away from a trip to the referee’s notebook. Ademilson has been hyped ever since he came to Japan last year, but he flattered to deceive while at Yokohama F.Marinos last year and has only shown sporadic flashes in his brief time in Osaka.

Scott: At age 36 Japanese legend Endo is certainly in the twilight of his career. Is he still a player to be watched? And what does he bring to this Osaka team?

Stuart: Hmmm. That really depends on who you ask. There seems to be two camps when discussing Endo. The first camp won’t hear a bad word said about him, that he is an icon of the club and should always get the benefit of the doubt. The second camp would say that he unnecessarily slows the game down in midfield and that he should make way for someone with a bit more urgency.

Last year Endo was once again important as Gamba went full throttle for trophies on four fronts, but there were signs that he was fallible and that Gamba had to look to groom his replacement. This year, with results going the way they have, people are having to confront an uncomfortable truth - that they might be witnessing the career of an all-time great coming to an end. 

On his day, what does he bring to the side? He brings a wealth of experience and organizational skill. He still has the power to deliver pinpoint passes & crosses and if given time & space can still dictate Gamba’s tempo. He needs help in this regard and he will be affected by the potential loss of Yosuke Ideguchi, the Osaka club’s highly promising midfield general who looks set to miss this game through injury. 

Scott: What is your prediction for the game?

Stuart: I simply don’t think Gamba are playing well enough to confidently predict a win. When they put everything together, Gamba are like a whirlwind that just scythe through teams with pace & precision. When they aren’t on their game, they can be easily riled & wound up and I expect Suwon would know this and try to exploit it. I think it will finish 2-2.

Stuart Asks, Scott Answers

Stuart: A look at the K.League Classic league table shows Suwon in mid-table. Is that a fair reflection on their start to the season?

Scott: Suwon got off to a terrible start only taking one point from their opening two games. This included a humiliating defeat on the opening day of the season going down 2-0 to Seongnam. It wasn't so much the lack of points accumulated in the first two games of the season that was worrying, it was the performance of the team. They looked like a team that couldn't attack and couldn't defend. They were able to keep hold of the ball for long periods but were rarely troubling the opposition's goal. Whilst at the other end of the pitch, it looked like the opposition team would score with every attack.

However, Suwon have since turned a corner and are now 7 games unbeaten. In this period Suwon have played some great, attacking, entertaining football. However, the only thing that has stopped Suwon from climbing up the K League table is the lack of a decent centre forward. Every game 4 or 5 good goal scoring opportunities are being created by the fantastic Suwon midfield, but time and time again, they are being squandered.

Also, Suwon have been unable to concentrate for the whole 90 minutes in their games this season and have been guilty of conceding in the last 15 minutes of the game 5 times already this season. They are goals that turned 3 victories into 3 draws.

On reflection, Suwon have played much better than their points tally indicates and in recent weeks they have shown a lot of the attacking verve that they have produced in seasons gone by. Now is not a good time to face Suwon because they are just on the cusp of getting things right. 

Stuart: Are Suwon good travelers? How have they performed on the road in recent ACL campaigns?

Scott: In general, Suwon have a decent away record in the ACL and have only lost 6 games away from home in the last 5 years. However, Suwon always set up in a defensive formation away from home and generally look to either snatch a close run victory or see the game out for a draw. As a result, the vast majority of their away games result in them taking only one point home with them.

It will be very interesting to see how Suwon approach this game as a point just simply won't do and the minimum required from the game is all 3. Will Suwon take the game to an out of form Osaka or will they sit back and try to hit on the counter attack, which is their usual ploy? It's a dilemma for the manager and it's not one that he will relish. 

Stuart: The meeting between these two sides in Korea produced a 0-0 draw. What do you think Suwon and their coach Seo Jung-Won will have learned from that?

Scott: I think everyone realised that night that this Gamba team is not like the Gamba teams of the recent past. They were placid, slow and didn't show a lot of commitment. It was only really Suwon's sloppy finishing that allowed Gamba to leave Korea with anything at all.

I would like to think that Seo Jung-won will have realised that this Suwon side has a fighting chance against an under-par Osaka and will instruct his players to attack as we they did on that cold and icy night in February. Suwon attacks were frequent that night with Yeom Ki-hun and Ko Cha-won bombing down either flank. It was great to watch and I hope that the manager and the team are brave enough to adopt this approach to the game again.

I also hope that Seo Jung-won realised that night that if he had had the proper service Patric could have caused Suwon a lot of problems. On the odd occasion that Osaka played the ball to the big man, Osaka looked more dangerous. The big target man made a nuisance of himself and if he had been given decent support from his teammates Osaka could have even taken more from the game. Thus, Seo Jung-won should play a centre back that will thrive on the physical challenge that Patric supplies. I would like to see Min Sang-gi retain his place in the starting line-up. He played very well in the league game at the weekend and dealt comfortably with one of the K League's strongest foreign imports, Kevin Oris.

Stuart: Which player or players are Gamba Osaka going to have keep a particular eye on?

Scott: I would like to name the entire Suwon midfield because they are a tremendously talented crop of players, but if I did that I would end up writing an entire essay, so I will limit this to just 4 players.

The player most in form at the moment is Kwon Chang-hoon. Chang-hoon is a 21 year old goalscoring, attacking midfielder that loves to play around the striker and try to get in behind the opposition defence. Last season saw him gain a call up to the national team squad as he plundered 10 goals from midfield in his debut season. That prompted a lot of interest from Germany and he looks certain to move to the Bundesliga in the summer as he has continued where he left off last season, scoring 4 goals already.

Osaka should also fear Yeom Ki-hun. The left winger is a Suwon legend and a veteran of the K League and ACL. He holds the record for most assists in K League history and has one of the best left foots in Asia. He can provide pin-point crosses either from open play or dead ball situations and can also strike a superb free kick. If he is given time to pick out Chang-hoon then the end result will most likely be a goal.

Thirdly, Gamba Osaka should fear Baek Ji-hoon. Ji-hoon is a strong holding midfielder so is very unlikely to get on the scoresheet. However, much like Gamba's Endo, if Ji-hoon is given time on the ball he can dictate play and he is the key to Suwon's slick passing game. Ji-hoon is also fantastic in 1-on-1 situations with attacking players. More often than not, Ji-hoon will win his duels, recycle the ball neatly, and before you know it the Suwon midfield is attacking again. Baek Ji-hoon recently came back into the team after a lengthy injury and was rested for the game at the weekend, so the hope is that he will be fit and raring to go for the game in Japan.

Finally, Gamba will need to watch out for Suwon's latest youngster Kim Gun-hee. The 21 year old has come from playing university football last season straight into the Suwon first team and he has excelled, so far. He is still yet to register a goal in his handful of professional appearances, but his all round play is a delight to watch. He links play superbly, has 2 fantastic feet, a superb first touch and is a willing runner. He particularly links well with Yeom Ki-hun and a feature of his play is to drift towards the left side so he can play close to Ki-hun. He is vitally important to Suwon's midfield and he must play in Japan. 

Stuart: Perceived wisdom says this game is a must win for both sides. How do you think that will affect the set up/tactics that Suwon will look to employ?

Scott: As I mentioned above Suwon tend to err on the side of caution when they play away from home in the ACL. They have employed a 4-2-3-1 formation in both their ACL away games thus far. However, I expect that to change on Tuesday night.

In the K League, Suwon have been employing an adventurous 4-1-4-1 formation and they try to push their midfield as far up the pitch as possible. At times, it leaves the defence isolated but it has been reasonably successful as Suwon have dominated proceedings in all but one of the games that they have played. With 3 points being the only option, I expect Seo Jung-won to stick with this formation and go all out for the win. 

Stuart: What do you think the score will be?

Scott: I am backing Suwon to win. They have been playing some marvelous football as of late and just haven't had the luck that's required to get over the finish line. I expect Suwon's midfield to be the key to the game and if the big players turn up and play well then Suwon will have a chance of winning in Osaka.

Gamba Osaka 1 - 2 Suwon Bluewings

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