|Gamba Osaka won the 2008 AFC Champions League|
Not only do they face their old foe Gamba Osaka first up, they do so in their own backyard – the derelict Expo ’70 Stadium in Osaka.
Melbourne and Gamba fought one of the best AFC Champions League games in recent memory in 2008 when Gamba snatched a late winner to leave Melbourne with a 4-3 win and all three points.
Of the starting XI for Gamba that night, seven are still with the club. As is coach Akira Nishino, so they will be no strangers to Melbourne Victory.
Knowing how a team plays is one thing, beating them is another. And that is the challenge that lay ahead for Merrick’s men.
Gamba’s biggest change over the off-season has been to their attacking stocks. Gone are one-time regulars Lucas, who scored the late winner in 2008, and South Korean Cho Jae-Jin.
To replace them they didn’t have to look for, taking Brazilian Adriano off cross-town rivals Cerezo Osaka. Adriano scored 14 goals in the J.League last season and Gamba will be hoping he can replicate that form this season.
One player to look out for is young sensation Takashi Usami.
Usami has been dubbed “the most talented player the club has ever produced”, which is quite an accolade given the quality of players to have come through Gamba’s youth system. Players such as Hideo Hashimoto, Takahiro Futagawa and Michihiro Yasuda.
At just 18 years of age Usami has already attracted the attention of Bayern Munich scouts, who will be in attendance for the Osaka Derby just days after their clash with Melbourne.
Usami started 22 games last year in the J.League, scoring 7 goals. He also featured four times during the ACL, three of them starts, scoring twice in the process.
Australian audiences will need no introduction to Yasuhito Endo.
Endo is a mainstay of both the Gamba and Japanese national team and is deadly from the set piece. He sets up a lot of Gamba’s attacks and the Victory midfield and defence will have their work cut out for them negating his influence.
Endo is keen to add another ACL title to his collection too, telling the-afc.com last week, “…of course we think we can win the title again, we will try as hard as we can to win this Championship.”
Gamba’s desire to always play attacking Football will not change for the ACL, with the side likely to play an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation.
They have been felled by a couple of key injuries however, with Tomokazu Myojin sidelined with a right foot injury until mid-March and Hideo Hashimoto, one of their midfield generals, out after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament during the pre-season.
Gamba are considered by many to be a favourite for the J.League this season, and it is hard to see them not having a strong run at a second ACL title in three years.