AFC Champions League - Last 16: Wed, 24th June 2009
|2 - 3|
|LEANDRO 27', 39'||NAKAMURA 33'
Venue: Expo '70 Stadium
Frontale clinched their second ACL quarter-final spot in 3 years with a dramatic, late comeback against the competition's reigning champions, Gamba Osaka, on Wednesday night.
Gamba dominated early on and should really have had the tie wrapped up by half time. But Frontale rode their luck and battled bravely til the end, twice coming from behind before stealing victory at the death.
Yasuhito Endo and Leandro, both of whom had been injury doubts for Gamba in the lead-up to the game, were instrumental in the home team's first-half dominance. Endo's passing, movement and set play delivery caused Frontale problems from the outset, and there was a string of chances that went begging before Leandro finally gave his team a deserved lead.
Gamba were finding most joy on Frontale's left where the understanding between Ito and Murakami often looked frayed. And it was down this flank that Leandro found space before cutting in past three defenders and beating big Eiji.
There's no doubt Sekizuka lost the tactical battle in the first half. His decision to play three stikers - Juninho, Renatinho and Chong Tese - backfired as Gamba dominated the midfield rendering Frontale's front men impotent. Although, to be fair to the manager, a fit Vitor Junior would have given him more options.
And, of course, it wasn't just the formation. Gamba played some excellent, energetic football in the first half. It was almost as if they had an extra man on the field, so easily were they finding space and retaining possession. Frontale's overstretched midfield - of Kengo, Taniguchi and Terada - was too busy defending the tide of Gamba pressure to have any real opportunity to supply their increasingly isolated strikers.
But then came possibly the game's most crucial moment. During a rare Frontale offensive raid, a neat backheel from Renatinho on the edge of the box found Kengo in space. As the Gamba defence stood off, a gap appeared and captain K took an opportunistic strike that sailed sweetly into the bottom corner.
This bolt from the blue, coming completely against the run of play, put some much-needed wind back in the visitors' sails as well as temporarily knocking Gamba off their stride. And although Gamba were back in the lead before the break - Leandro strolling in unchallenged to convert Akira Kaji's perfect cross - Kengo's goal meant Frontale still had a lifeline to cling onto.
I'll give Sekizuka the benefit of the doubt and assume his half-time change - Yuji Yabu on for Chong Tese - was purely tactical. The extra body in midfield certainly made a difference and the second half was a much more even contest.
That's not to say Gamba didn't have chances to kill the game off. Soon after the break both Leandro and Lucas squandered decent opportunities to extend their lead, but it wasn't to be.
Frontale were now seeing a lot more of the ball and Gamba, with several players only recently returned from injury, looked to be tiring. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Kurotsu came on for Juninho just as the pressure was beginning to tell, and with half an hour still on the clock.
Now, Kurotsu's never been the deadliest tool in Frontale's weaponry, but within minutes of his arrival he'd almost levelled things up. Released down the left by Kengo, he saw Gamba keeper, Yosuke Fujigaya, off his line and put in a deft lob that dropped agonisingly wide.
Shortly after, there was another flurry of activity on the sidelines. Initially, Yokoyama was stripped and ready to replace the flagging Terada. But just as the official's board was going up Renatinho motioned to the bench that he was in trouble - the problem appearing to be the mouth injury he picked up against Oita at the weekend.
Sekizuka (quite rightly) told the Brazilian to stop being such a big girl's blouse, but delayed the substitution and had Yajima readied just in case. This turned out to be a very wise decision, as moments later it was Renatinho who squared the tie with a spectacular strike.
Kengo was again involved - picking up the ball outside the Gamba box before flicking it wide to Rena. The boy wonder then cut inside Michihiro Yasuda and unleashed a curling, left-footed shot from the corner of the penalty area that wiped its feet on the angle of post and bar before hitting the back of the net. Obviously not feeling the effects of that mouth injury too much!
With 10 minutes left Gamba looked to bolster their attack, bringing on Korean striker Cho Jae-Jin for Takahiro Futagawa. However, this allowed Frontale more room in midfield and Kengo was quick to exploit this.
Combining with Renatinho to break up another wave of pressure, Kengo again launched Kurotsu through on goal. Hearts were in mouths as the substitute striker delayed until the very last second before prodding the ball past Fujigaya to give Frontale the lead.
With the seconds ticking away Gamba threw on more attackers. Of these, Ryuji Bando came closest to forcing extra time, but Kawashima did well to tip over his fierce drive. And despite a nervy finish, Frontale were able to hold out for a momentous victory.
The draw for the quarter finals will take place on the 29th June. Frontale will be paired with one of the following teams from the Western Asia qualifying section - Umm-Salal (Qatar), Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan), Pakhtakor Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia).
ACL action is now on hold til the end of September, which gives the team a chance to focus on their climb up the J.League table. I'm sure Gamba will be keen on revenge when they meet for a league clash next Wednesday.
As an aside, Renatinho's current contract is due to expire at the end of month. Given his recent form, surely an extension is in the offing?