Goal-den Week

Golden Week in Japan starts tomorrow (April 29) and it is an important time to assess the goals & targets for the team this year. FC Gifu’s schedule in the next 9 days is a pretty tough one, and as such it will be a good barometer to the team’s hopes in 2016.

April 29 – vs Renofa Yamaguchi (H)

Gifu welcome Renofa Yamaguchi to Nagaragawa Memorial Centre with the team from west Japan on an absolute high after thumping JEF United Chiba last week. Renofa, led by their dangerous forward line, are unbeaten in their last five games and seem to have carried on their cavalier style which saw them win J3 last year.

Key man – Yatsunori Shimaya

Scorer of 16 goals last year, the ex-Verspah Oita forward is a difficult man to keep track of on the pitch. He doesn’t really play the traditional strikers role that his goalscoring record throughour Japan’s leagues indicates he would. Instead, he tends to drift to the sides and tries to find space in oppositions’ defensive set-up. Given that Gifu’s athletic right back Tsukasa Masuyama is out through suspension, it will be up to Go Iwase and whoever replaces Masuyama to defend him. Easier said than done.

May 3 – vs Machida Zelvia (A)

Machida Zelvia – top of the league. Not a sentence many people though they’d be saying in 2016, but that is exactly what is occurring now. They’ve won six of their last seven and the only defeat they’ve suffered was on the opening day against pre-season title favourites Cerezo Osaka.

Key man – Ri Han Jae

With a team playing as well as Zelvia are, it is difficult to limit the key player search. Veteran forward Yuki Nakashima deserves a mention after scoring five goals so far, but I’ll go with Zelvia’s midfield linchpin, and ex-FC Gifu player, Ri Han Jae.

Ri isn’t the sexiest player you’ll ever see, but his importance to the way Zelvia play is undeniable. Someone who sits in the middle of the park and lets the other playmakers do their thing – in Machida’s case Takafumi Suzuki, Koji Suzuki and Tatsuya Yazawa. Never underestimate the importance of a no-frills holding/defensive midfielder.

May 8 vs Shimizu S-Pulse (H)

One game that FC Gifu supporters were looking forward to when the fixtures were announced, this Golden Week tilt will a popular place a week on Sunday. Last year, Gifu saw off S-Pulse’s rivals Jubilo Iwata at home, and this new look Gifu will hope to do the same to Shinji Kobayashi’s men. S-Pulse have taken their time to get used to life at this level, but so far have played better away from home than at Nihondaira. Maybe they feel less pressure away from home, who knows? But the facts are that Shimizu have, up to now, won all of their away games so far.

Key man – Genki Omae

I haven’t seen S-Pulse as much as I’d like to have done, but in the games I have seen it has been pretty hard to look past Genki Omae as their key man. A slippery forward with an accurate shot on him, he seems to play better when he is partnered/assisted by Aussie forward Mitchell Duke. Duke, and the returning Chong Tese take a lot of defensive heat off Omae, and he is very hard to defend one-on-one. He will present a huge challenge to Gifu’s relatively young centre back Ryutaro Karube. It is in a game such as this where a defensive midfielder is a must in order to stop Omae getting service. If he does, it will be bad for Gifu.

FC Gifu vs Matsumoto Yamaga: A history

In the short time that Matsumoto Yamaga have been in the J.League proper, I’ve come to look upon them as Gifu’s main “local” rivals. Of course, the word local in this context is relative; there is not a lot that is local about the two teams given that Matsumoto is 2.5 hour + train ride from Gifu, and something very similar by highway. But it is really the nearest thing either team have to a local derby that they can play in. Gifu don’t really have the chance to play Nagoya Grampus often, while Matsumoto will have to wait until Nagano Parceiro get their act together and get into J2 before they can partake in what would almost certainly be a “proper” derby.

So, for the time being both teams have to settle for this. And it isn’t a bad compromise. The games are almost always exciting, they feel like a derby, and the supporters get well into it. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at what happens when greens of Gifu and Matsumoto collide.

1.FC Gifu 0-1 Matsumoto Yamaga (May 13, 2012)

The first meeting between these sides was settled by a Kento Tsurumaki strike just before half time. The relative calm of this game was not a pre-cursor for the more dramatic matches were to come in this series.

2. Matsumoto Yamaga 1-0 FC Gifu (October 18, 2012)

I seem to remember this game being played in a midweek due to fixture congestion, and with Gifu mired in a relegation battle, it was imperative that we got something from the game. Unfortunately, with just two minutes left on the clock, Brazilian forward Ricardo scrambled in a winner to plunge Gifu into incredibly deep trouble. It was only the huge ineptness of Machida Zelvia and bad JFL stadia that kept Gifu up that year.

 

3. Matsumoto Yamaga 1-2 FC Gifu (April 14, 2013)

Where to start? How about the fact that Gifu hadn’t scored for about 4 years (that’s an exaggeration, but it was in the middle of the great Gifu goal drought of 2014….we hadn’t scored since the beginning of that season).

Gifu had brought in Hiroki Higuchi on loan to try and spark the forward line, and he looked sprightly as Gifu played really well in the first half. But right on the stroke of half time, Yuzo Iwakami (I think) floated a cross in that caught the strong wind and sailed over the stranded Shogo Tokihisa in Gifu’s goal. It was a goal that summed up Gifu’s season up to that point.

In the second half, FC Gifu played with that wind but couldn’t really create any clear chances. Coach Koji Gyotoku put on central defender Tatsuya Arai, much to the displeasure of the traveling supporters – but boy, were we proved wrong. 15 minutes from time, Kazuki Someya curled in a beautiful cross and Arai slammed a header in to the Yamaga net to cue delirious celebrations from the supporters. Things went from delirium to…..I’m not sure the progression from delirium but whatever it is called, Gifu supporters reached it when Arai bundled in his second with eight minutes remaining to put us 2-1 up.

Gifu held out to record a scarcely believable win, and I got very drunk on the train back. Good times!

4. FC Gifu 1-2 Matsumoto Yamaga (October 6, 2013)

It was really never going to live up to our expectations, this one as Shogo Shiozawa and Yuzo Iwakami powered Yamaga, and their fanatical traveling support, to a 2-1 win, despite Gifu’s Macedonian forward Blazhe Ilijovski’s injury time consolation goal.

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5. Matsumoto Yamaga 1-0 FC Gifu (April 26, 2014)

Despite a decent performance, Gifu fell victim once again to Yuzo Iwakami (he really doesn’t like Gifu, does he?) as his 75th minute winner settled what I remember to be a very even game.

6. FC Gifu 3-1 Matsumoto Yamaga

The edge was taken off this game when Matsumoto secured promotion to J1 the previous weekend, but that fact, and the fact that this was the final game for popular players Atsushi Mio and Kosuke Kitani made for a festival atmosphere.

Hiroaki Namba got straight in to the party mood when he crashed home a thirty yard rocket which was subsequently voted Gifu’s goal of the year. Hiroki Yamamoto replied almost instantly to level things, but right on half time Cristian Nazarit netted his 17th of an excellent campaign to restore Gifu’s lead.

The party was sealed when Masashi Miyazawa lashed in his first goal in EIGHT years to confirm Gifu as 3-1 winners. The players saw off Mio & Kitani in fitting style, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi lifted the “Top of Kita-Alps” trophy, and all was right with the world.

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Chapter 7 will be written next Sunday in Gifu……

4 in a row!

FC Gifu’s last four games:

  • Giravanz Kitakyushu 1-0
  • Ehime FC 3-0
  • Mito Hollyhock 1-0
  • Tokushima Vortis 3-1

ALL WINS!

At the time of writing this – Sunday April 3rd – FC Gifu sit 5th in J2. Quite how this has happened has baffled more than a few people. But I will attempt to try and explain it.

1.The system

In going from such a horrific start to 5th in the league, there had to be some kind of change in tactical thinking. From the Kitakyushu game, Ramos (or others on his coaching staff) knew that having a player whose job it was just to block attacks before they hit the last line of defence would be invaluable. Since then, Gifu haven’t stopped winning. Now Ramos uses a 4-1-4-1 system which gives a lot more protection to the defence, as well as providing the midfield with a bit more reinforcement. If I was being generous, I’d liken it to how Jurgen Klopp/Thomas Tuchel set up Borussia Dortmund. Of course, Gifu don’t have Ilkay Gundogan, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Marco Reus etc to call on, but I think the idea is the same: back that your organization of the midfield and the individual ability of the attacking players are better that the opposition.

You’d think that employing a system like this would result in a significant decrease in the amount of attacking options, but it hasn’t. Why? That brings me on to point number 2….

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Ruy Ramos

2.The players

Whether by design or by chance, Ramos has found a set of players that can implement the new system perfectly.

It starts at the back, where Tsukasa Masuyama (right back) and Shun Nogaito (left back) provide stamina, and attacking threat from the full back position.

The holding midfielder – usually Daiki Tamori if fit (although it was Naoya Okane in today’s win against Tokushima) – has one job: sit in front of the central defenders.

The central midfielders, of which Taisuke Mizuno has made himself almost indispensable, have to provide the requisite mix of energy, tracking & ball playing ability. Mizuno, Tsubasa Aoki, Leonardo Rocha, Keiji Takachi can all mix & match in there and can fill whatever roles are required of them.

Arguably the key to the attacking intent of this team are the wide players. They need to have lots of stamina, a high work rate, be able to create chances and possess the ability to help the striker and be dangerous of their own accord. Luckily for Gifu we have two players could not be any more of a perfect fit for these roles. On the left is Leo Mineiro, arguably one of the best players in the league at this point. He is so dangerous with the ball, but that is balanced by his incessant running & chasing. On the right, Koya Kazama has found his calling as an attacking right sided midfielder. This season, he just seems to have become with each game, culminating in today’s 10/10 performance. He is so busy, and one thing that has also improved this year is his final ball/set piece delivery and he poses a threat to the opposition whenever he has the ball at his feet.

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When you play just one up front, that one player has to be able to defend from the front if the pressing system is to work. Ryo Takiya, the young forward straight out of university did really well in his first games and looks like he could develop into a good player. Today, Bruno Suzuki really played well in the role. He brought an element of pace and the ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender that Gifu has missed since Nazarit left. Considering it was his full debut for the club, Suzuki was excellent. He tired a bit towards the end, when he was replaced by Leonardo Rocha, but up until that point he was constantly chasing defenders and using his pace to get in down the channels. When does that, it creates a lot of space behind for the likes of Leo, Kazama, Takachi & Rocha to work in.

3.Young players

In what seems like a complete reversal from his first two years. Ramos is entrusting young players in the system. The aforementioned Ryo Takiya has performed well, as have Taisuke Mizuno & Tsubasa Aoki in midfield. Perhaps the most impressive youngster has been defender Masaya Tashiro, who unfortunately missed out today after breaking a bone in his cheek. He looked like a superb find in his limited playing time before the injury, and I expect him to come back in and form a good partnership with Masanori Abe or Naoya Okane. Ryutaro Karube played in defence today, and looked excellent. It seems a very “Ramos thing” to do, to put someone in defence with no prior experience but looks good on the ball (in fact, it is something that – whisper it – Pep Guardiola likes to do with his teams. Think Javier Mascherano at Barca, Javi Martinez at Bayern)  but Karube showed excellent poise in difficult weather conditions and displayed his ball skills when passing out of defence. It could be a find – assuming Ramos was as impressed as I was.

4.Yoshinari Takagi

It is all very well to trumpet the use of young players, but Yoshinari Takagi, Gifu’s veteran goalkeeper, has been pivotal to the recent run of form. I was taken aback when he was signed in the winter, and it is fair to say I was pretty unimpressed. But he has been the experienced head that Gifu needed after those two 0-4 results to start the season. He is laid back, relaxed and doesn’t take himself too seriously – traits that endeared himself to players and fans alike. Above that, it cut through the smoky atmosphere that was threatening to pervade the club. He has been stout and reliable when called upon and has given those in front of him a commanding/loud presence that they really needed.

All these things have come together to play a part in FC Gifu’s first four consecutive win run in seven years. We will look to make it five in a row next week against Kamatamare Sanuki. They say “confidence breeds confidence” – if that is true, FC Gifu are just getting started.

 

#WeAreGifu

The holding midfielder

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In the first two weeks of the season, FC Gifu were soundly beaten 4-0 by Gunma and Sapporo respectively. Those defeats had Gifu supporters wondering whether manager Ruy Ramos actually had any defensive ideas in his head at all.

But fast forward one week, and FC Gifu saw off pre-season promotion fancied Giravanz Kitakyushu with a fiercely fought 1-0 win at the Memorial Centre. So what happened? In my opinion it was down to the deployment of a bona-fide holding midfielder – Daiki Tamori.

The Job

It isn’t rocket science. It is to provide a shield in front of the two centre backs so that opposition midfielder aren’t running wild through the centre of the pitch. In an ideal world, there would be no attacking duties linked with the position, just simple distribution ie: giving the ball to players that can actually use the ball in a creative way (in Gifu’s case Keiji Takachi & Taisuke Mizuno).

Also, as well as providing a shield, the holding midfielder has to be the “controller of the hole”. That sounds like a weird concept, but it basically means taking care of players that play “in the hole” behind a main striker. Some people call it a “false 9”, in Italian it is a “trequarista”. If teams play with two flat banks of players (whether it be a 4-4-2 or any variant of 3-5-2) it can be very difficult to pick those floating players up. A holding midfielder can perform that task.

The Player

Daiki Tamori. Signed from Kyoto Sanga in the winter, I’ve always known him as a holding midfielder. A no-nonsense blocker of a player. So I was surprised when he lined up in defence for Gifu’s opening games because I didn’t presume that was why he was brought to Gifu. It is true we needed to plug the defensive gaps, but I assumed that Masaya Tashiro, Wellington Rocha and Naoya Okane would be the first choice centre halves.

To be honest, no-one played well in those 0-4 defeats, and Tamori wasn’t helped by the lack of protection in front of him. But he didn’t look comfortable, and that transmitted to Okane and William Popp in goal and the result was two heavy defeats.

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The Result

In the Kitakyushu game, he found his niche. He sat in front of Tashiro & Masanori (who, incidentally are both quite mobile centre backs) and, in the parlance of a respected football pundit “did the simple things well”. He got in front of the ball, he blocked and tackled very well, as the game went on he stopped Giravanz attacks in their embryonic stage by patrolling a bit further up the pitch.

He was able to stop Ikemoto from causing trouble when he dropped deep, ditto for Motoyama. When Kotegawa drifted inside, Tamori was there to slow him down. It didn’t work all the time, but it worked a lot of it. He didn’t try to be a hero, he just gave the ball to Mizuno, Takachi & Koya Kazama and charged them with creating chances.

A lot of people looked at the fact of Yoshinari Takagi replacing Popp in goal as the key to this clean sheet. While Takagi undoubtedly did contribute to the win, especially given his fantastic one handed save from a close range header, I would put forward the theory that a true holding midfielder was the reason Gifu were in a position to win this game.

The Future

You never quite know with Ramos, but it would take a stretch to believe that he would mess with a formation & tactic that looked way more organized than any of the previous games, so Tamori will likely start against one of his former clubs on Sunday. In the future, it is possible that Tsubasa Aoki or Masaru Akiba might be in contention to play the role, but they are a bit more attack-minded compared to Tamori. If Gifu are doing well in the league and they fancy going for it, then I wouldn’t mind a ball playing holding midfielder coming in. But while Gifu are still near the bottom of the table, it is essential that they are organized and hard to break down (or at least harder to break down than they have been previously). Daiki Tamori, in the holding midfielder position, provides that anchor.

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Hail the holding midfielder.

Too early to panic?

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After another 0-4 defeat, dark clouds are gathering above the Nagaragawa Memorial Centre and FC Gifu supporters are staring down the barrel of a long, long season – unless something changes.

In the last four competitive games, Gifu have been done over by an aggregate score of 15-1. Those results are:

  • Kamatamare Sanuki 0-3
  • Avispa Fukuoka 1-4
  • Gunma 0-4
  • Sapporo 0-4

Those four results are split evenly between last season and this, so some of the players are different, but the results have stayed largely the same. In fact, Gifu have won just one of their last ten competitive games. Is it too early in the season to panic? Some (not me) would say yes, given that we are only two games in. We wouldn’t, and don’t, expect Gunma and Kamatamare Sanuki to end up in the promotion places. But to dismiss Gifu’s bad start is to miss the fact that the signs have been there for a while. And it would be foolish not to heed those signs and try to figure out a solution before it becomes too late.

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So, what needs to happen? What needs to change?

The manager?

I suppose it’s the easiest place to lay the blame. He was very defiant in his press conference after yesterday’s defeat, saying he was looking forward to getting back on the training ground and working things out. But, the problem with that is that he and the coaching staff have had all winter to sort out the defensive issues.

I don’t know if he is willing to change his outlook on how the game should be played (a la Arsene Wenger at Arsenal) but he really has to cut his cloth according to the materials he has at his disposal here in Gifu. He might need to sacrifice his principles in order to shore Gifu, as a team unit, up. He has given us some excellent performances in his two plus years here, but his ideas for expansive, attacking football, while laudable, don’t always come off.

If I was in charge, this week’s training would be about two things: protecting the defence, and performing attacking overload drills – six attackers versus four defenders, or something like that. Getting defenders to communicate better, and defending space better is an absolute must. In these first two games, too many players have drifted towards the ball, leaving space behind them and Gunma & Sapporo exploited that with ease.

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Ruy Ramos

The players?

In theory, they could. But both full backs – Go Iwase & Shun Nogaito – were dropped this week and lots of the same problems still existed. The holding midfielders changed, yet the back line was still exposed. It is my view that the players aren’t the whole problem here. They’re not superstars by any means, but there is some amount of talent there, they just need a system they can play in, and that they can trust.

The tactics?

Yes. In case anyone hasn’t realized, Gifu have a problem conceding goals that isn’t confined to this season. That tells me not enough is being done in the planning / strategizing to neutralize that. It is a good thing to want to play attacking, attractive football, but if you are doing it from being behind, it is, more often than not, a token effort.

Again, if I was in charge next week this is what I’d go with:

(in a 4-5-1 formation, assuming everyone is available)

Popp/Tokizawa

Abe – Okane – Tashiro – Shun

Masuyama – Tamori – Takachi – Aoki – Paulo

Leo Mineiro

I’d be tempted to let Popp sit out of the Giravanz game. I don’t hold him responsible for any of Sapporo’s goals at the weekend, but it is the second time in a week he has conceded four and so it might be a good time just to let him clear his head. I really hope he doesn’t lose too much confidence because he has the look of a very promising ‘keeper, but it might be an idea for Tokizawa to come in.

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Satoshi Tokizawa

I like the look of Abe and Masuyama down the right, and I think Paulo could bring a large slice of energy to the left hand side.

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Junichi Paulo Tanaka

Leo has been drifting out that way, but he’s much more effective playing in a central role, preferably against the centre backs. He can use his pace and skill much more productively in the middle.

I really like Taisuke Mizuno as a player, but if I wanted to tighten things up I’d stick Tamori in with Aoki and tell them just to stay there, and don’t let anything past them. The energy that Masuyama & Paulo would bring to the sides would help in that fact.

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Daiki Tamori

That team might not look pretty, but if it was given the correct orders and strategy, it could be a very stiff team – and right now FC Gifu NEED a clean sheet, no matter how it comes.

 

The mentality?

Without question. When asked in his press conference about the fragility of the side, Ramos said that conceding a clear chance in the opening 20 seconds of the game, ruined the positivity that was built up in the previous week’s training. I didn’t see last week’s training, so I don’t know how positive it was (or could have been) but it isn’t easy to argue Ramos’ implication that Gifu are not strong mentally.

That isn’t a reflection on this team. It goes back a while, when even with the likes of Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Alex Santos, the team didn’t show enough of the mental fortitude needed to see out games from winning positions. The games that stick out to me are:

  • Losing at home to Yokohama FC – conceding two in three minutes
  • Drawing against 10 man Giravanz Kitakyushu after being 1-0 up
  • The epic capitulation at Tokyo Verdy last year. 3-0 up with ten minutes to play, before losing 4-3

How do you change a negative mentality? You either start winning, or you make a change and hope that that works. A change can also happen organically: a lucky goal, a decision going for you etc. Whatever. It needs to happen. And it really needs to happen soon.

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Players & staff after the Consadole game

Is it too early to panic? No. It isn’t. It is absolutely the right time to think about what isn’t going right, and how to rectify it. Before it actually does become too late. Nothing would make me happier than to look back at this post in a month’s time and say “What a moron, can’t believe I panicked so early!”. I sincerely hope it transpires that way, but it is going to take some harsh truths and strong leadership to put us right.

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One thing that won’t change is the fantastic support that FC Gifu supporters give. I’d like to think they will be rewarded soon.

#WeAreGifu

Gifu’s key man in 2016

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The season opener is almost upon us, and it is a decent time for me to posit who I think Gifu’s key player will be this year. There are quite a few candidates, but I’m going for someone who will need assume a lot of responsibility for making FC Gifu’s defence better than it was last year. That man is Naoya Okane.

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Okane needs to be leader and organizer of the defence this season. He has the size & stature to be a commanding presence in the heart of Ruy Ramos’ back line. There shouldn’t be too many players who can be him in a aerial battle and he, along with whoever is in goal, will need to make sure that everyone is doing their jobs at set pieces. He is very popular with players & fans alike because, for the fans at least, we know he gives it everything every time he steps on the pitch.

He formed a decent pairing with Masaki Watanabe last year when the Kofu defender joined on loan. After Okane, Watanabe and goalkeeper Satoshi Tokizawa started playing regularly together, Gifu conceded an average of 1.3 goals per game. Not great, but much better than the 2.17 goals/game that preceded Watanabe coming. The lesson that I take from that is that:

  • a) Watanabe is actually a pretty good player
  • b) Okane needs a constant partner in order to build up a relationship

It isn’t rocket science. Strikers that play together get a feel for where the other is going to be and can play accordingly. At the back, it is much the same. Central defensive pairings need familiarity otherwise there is the danger that no-one knows what the other one will do in any given situation, whether that situation is stepping up for offside, deciding who challenges for headers, who tracks runners & who closes down the player in possession etc etc. I’d really like the coach to pick a pairing and stick with it. Whether it be Okane & Wellington Rocha; Okane & Tashiro or Okane & Tamori – he has to be given a chance to build rapport and understanding with his partner. Only then will you see an improvement in defence.

He reminds me, in a little way, of Urawa Reds defender Tomoaki Makino in as much as that he seems like a very emotional player. You very rarely see him expressionless. He smiles, snarls, looks incredulous and innocent one minute, and then the next minute he is starting a bit of pushing with an opposition player. He doesn’t hold anything back, which is good to certain extent. BUT, Okane has to keep his emotions in check. Not all the time, because as a defender you need that edge (just ask Yuki Oshitani what he thinks of Masaki Watanabe’s edge) but he needs to keep his cool. Putting your hands behind your back when complaining isn’t going to fool anyone. When a free-kick is given against him, even if he thinks it is unjustified, he needs to get his head on on focus on the restart. Be the leader, be the organizer, be the rock in Gifu’s defence.

 

A lot of Gifu’s success this year will depend on how much the defence has improved over the winter. Okane will be vital in this, and that is why I believe that he will be Gifu’s key man in 2016.

#ForzaOkane

#WeAreGifu