Gamba Osaka is making a habit out of miraculous recoveries.
In 2012 they suffered the ignominy of being relegated after a disastrous campaign, but bounced straight back after storming their way through J2 in 2013.
Their return to J1 last season started poorly, but incredibly they came from the relegation zone at the mid-year break to storm home and win the J.League title on the final day, edging out rivals Urawa Reds, who had led for most of the campaign, by a single point.
It was just one of three trophies the club collected; also claiming the Nabisco and Emperor’s Cups to become the first Japanese club to win the domestic treble.
Their Phoenix-like ability has been on full display during this year’s AFC Champions League campaign. Winless in their first three games in what, on paper, looked a more than manageable group, their campaign was hanging by a thread ahead of a visit to the i-mobile Stadium, also wonderfully known as the Thunder Castle, in Thailand to play Buriram United.
An early goal from Thai international Theerathon Bunmathan was cancelled out by Lins just before half time, but another draw would have all but ended Gamba’s hopes of making it out of Group F. An 87th minute goal from young midfielder Kotaro Omori rescued all three points and gave the 2008 Asian champions a glimmer of hope. That win was followed by a 5-0 thumping of Chinese side Guangzhou R&F on match day five.
On the final match day they travelled to Korea to play top-of-the-group Seongnam knowing anything less than three points would likely not be enough to progress.
Once again they fell behind early, before starlet Takashi Usami levelled things up just after the hour mark. With Buriram United easily accounting for Guangzhou R&F, a point would not be enough for Gamba. Leaving it late again, the Osaka side found a winner in the 82nd minute courtesy of Brazilian striker Lins.
Not only did they qualify for the Round of 16, they did so by finishing top of the group after a complicated series of tie-breakers were required to separate them from Seongnam and Buriram United after all three sides finished on 10 points.
They easily dispatched FC Seoul 6-3 on aggregate in the Round of 16 before coming up against another Korean side, Jeonbuk Hyundai, in the Quarter Final. After surviving the first leg in Jeonju (0-0) they returned to Osaka confident of getting a result.
But it wouldn’t be Gamba Osaka without some drama. An early penalty gifted Jeonbuk the lead and an important away goal before Gamba did what they do best, by hitting straight back before taking the lead midway through the second half. An 88th minute goal from Urko Vera looked to have sealed the win for a jubilant Jeonbuk, but there was to be one final twist.
With stoppage time all but up, a sublime pass from Yasuhito Endo split a surprisingly open Jeonbuk defence and allowed Koki Yonekura to poke the ball home with the last kick of the game to seal a semi final date with Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande.
After coughing up an early lead to lose the first leg 2-1 in Guangzhou, Gamba will need to produce another backs-to-the-wall performance to come from behind and prevail against a Guangzhou side looking for their second ACL title in three years.
Veteran midfielder Endo, one of only four players remaining from the 2008 ACL title winning side, believes his side has it in them.
“It’s definitely a positive for us that we could gain the away goal,” he said last week. “Guangzhou will have to both attack and defend in the second match. Although we are one goal behind, we have the away goal which means the situation is to our advantage.
“We know we have to go for the win at our home ground, and the earlier we can score the bigger chance we will have. Although Guangzhou has good players going forward, I feel their defence is not very organised at times.
“Guangzhou are the favourites to win the AFC Champions League, in my opinion, so we really want to win.”
The 35-year-old, named J.League MVP last season, is determined to end his illustrious career with another continental title on his CV.
“I want us to become champions in Asia once again, that’s it,” the 2009 Asian Footballer of the Year said. “We experienced the AFC Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2008 and I want to stand on the same stage again. That’s all I have in mind.”
Guangzhou coach Luis Felipe Scolari, who replaced Fabio Cannavaro earlier this year, has cautioned his side against complacency ahead of the match on Wednesday night.
“I have told the team that the game is not finished yet and anything can still happen, so we have to be very careful still,” the FIFA World Cup-winning coach said.
“Gamba Osaka is certainly the best team I have encountered since taking over as coach of Guangzhou. Their team has experience and ability.
“But my players did well in the first leg and I was pleased with them. And I believe they will play well in the second leg.
“Our team has one goal: win the game.”
And one goal could just about do it for Guangzhou, meaning Gamba would have to score twice to send it to extra time or three times to win outright.
While that might seem unlikely, if there is one thing we have learned over the last few years it is to never count Gamba Osaka out.