It has been a while since I blogged, and a lot has happened in the intervening time. Far too much for me to go over in one post, so I’ll just cut to the chase.
After two successive victories, FC Gifu sit in 19th place in the J2 table on 40 points, three points above bottom placed Zweigen Kanazawa with two games remaining. Gifu will secure their J2 status should Kanazawa & second-bottom Giravanz Kitakyushu (also on 37 points) lose and Gifu avoid defeat in Kumamoto on Saturday afternoon.
That Gifu are in this position at all – with their destiny in their own hands – seems slightly unbelievable given it was not so long ago that Yoshida’s men lost five games in a row. But a gutsy win against Gunma last Thursday coupled with an exhilarating win against Yokohama FC last Sunday have Gifu in control.
Gifu make the long trek south west to Kumamoto on Saturday, and historically it has been a happy hunting ground. They have won there on their previous two visits, and a similar outcome on Saturday will do very nicely. I would hope Yoshida sticks with the same eleven that played so well against Yokohama at the weekend – meaning Taisuke Mizuno & Yuto Ono keeping their places at the base of the midfield, Koya Kazama & Junichi Paulo Tanaka lining up on the wings and expanding their seemingly limitless energy there, and Hiroaki Namba lining up as the lone striker.
Namba’s role against YFC can’t be under-estimated. He played so selflessly, that it wasn’t until I watched the game again (I actually ended up watching it three times – once at the stadium and twice at home) that I realized how much his pressing gave Gifu, and gave space for Koya Kazama, Paulo Tanaka & Leo Mineiro to exploit. Many people will just look at the bottom line of ‘another game where Namba failed to score’ but that would be a misguided take. Namba harassed the YFC defenders and didn’t give them time to play from the back. If you watch Leo Mineiro’s second goal, it was actually Namba who won the ball off a Yokohama player deep in Gifu’s half, and then he had the presence of mind to feed Tanaka, who went on to play in Leo Mineiro, and Leo did the rest. Namba’s wasn’t a highlight-inducing performance, but it was exactly what Gifu needed in the way they were set up.
Of course though, the undoubted star of the show was Leo Mineiro. His two goals, allied to his goal against Gunma the previous Thursday, have put Gifu in the position they are now. Gifu are not a one man team – let me make that very clear. BUT, it is hard to see things being as positive as they are (and ‘positive’ is a relative term in this case) had Leo not stepped up when the team needed it.
It is no secret how much I rate Leo Mineiro. I made the argument earlier in the season that he is the best Brazilian plying his trade in J2, and that is a statement I stand by today. In face, if it wasn’t for Chong Tese of Shimizu S-Pulse, I would say he isn’t far away from being the best foreign player in the league. If Namba was doing all the dirty work (the ‘water carrying’ as Didier Deschamps might say) then it was Leo who was doing the box-office stuff. High speed dribbles, long range shots, playing on the shoulder of the last defender……oh, and scoring goals. His penalty was as cool as you could get under extreme pressure, and his second goal was sensational. Taking advantage of tired Yokohama defenders, he latched on to a pass from Junichi Paulo Tanaka, beat two defenders and the keeper before slotting in while losing his balance.
Gifu supporters love him. LOVE him. And Leo doesn’t leave anything behind. He gives his all for the team on the pitch. After the (at the time) devastating defeat at Kitakyushu which plunged Gifu to the bottom of the table, he was the player who stayed behind to talk to the supporters that had made the very long journey to Kitakyushu. The fact that he felt the need to speak to supporters at that time shows off a lot about his character. As does the way he is with supporters after the games. He is mobbed, but he always has time for everyone who asks, and no matter what the result of the game, he always has a smile. I find it reassuring, and I’m a grown man. So, what that positivity does to the kids who come to watch Gifu I can only imagine. He looks like he genuinely enjoys playing football for FC Gifu. If Gifu stay up, I really hope they try and sign him on a permanent basis (currently he is only at the club on loan). But the better he plays, the more other clubs will take notice. A double edged sword, if ever there was one.
So, Gifu travel to Kumamoto know that a win will put severe pressure on the other teams around them. Kumamoto snatched a last kick winner against Gifu in the corresponding fixture earlier this season (a dramatic 2-3 loss for Gifu) so I feel that we owe Kumamoto for that. As I said earlier, Gifu have won on their last two trips to that lovely part of Japan. 2014 was a 3-0 win, keyed by Keiji Takachi’s 40 yard pass into an empty net, while 2015’s edition featured a winning goal from Hiroaki Namba.
Kumamoto themselves are not mathematically safe just yet, so they do have something to play for. But if Gifu play as well as they did on Sunday, they’ll have a fighting chance to either secure J2 football for next year, or at least put them in prime position to do it on the final day.
Kick off is at 2pm (JST), Saturday, November 12.