ACL failure adds to Gamba Osaka's woes in a disappointing 2021

A 2021 that promised plenty for Gamba Osaka had already started to head south even before they embarked on their AFC Champions League campaign -- a return to the highest level of Asian club football in four years.

Now that they have failed in their quest to advance to the Round of 16 after a less-than-convincing fortnight in Tashkent, the Japanese outfit -- one of the continent's traditional powerhouses -- are staring at the face of a season that could become an absolute disappointment.

Granted, the situation Gamba currently find themselves in is not entirely their own doing.

They were badly hit by a spate of positive coronavirus cases among players and staff back in March, which saw them out of action for an entire month having played just one game of the new season.

Any momentum they had gathered in pre-season was abruptly brought to halt and has proven to be disruptive, even though they are now well and truly back in the thick of things.

With the J1 League continuing while the Japanese representatives in the ACL are away on their continental commitments, Gamba will return home finding themselves second from bottom albeit with six games in hand on the teams around them in the relegation zone.

Yet, the ACL campaign was not just a tournament that offered a good opportunity to get some rhythm going again, but also one they should have excelled in given the draw they were handed in Group H.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were always going to be their toughest test, but the target in their four games against Chiangrai United and Tampines Rovers must have been the maximum 12 points, which would have proven to be enough to advance to the knockout round.

Instead, while they held up their end of the bargain against Tampines and even managed to come from two goals down to hold Jeonbuk 2-2 in their first meeting, two consecutive draws against Chiangrai ultimately proved costly.

Those results could be attributed in equal measure to the spirit Chiangrai displayed, as it could to the lack of that Gamba themselves produced.

Even in Saturday's final Group H encounter, where they desperately needed win against a Jeonbuk side already through to the next stage, it was their opponents who displayed more desire and ultimately claimed the 2-1 win.

With a six-goal haul from a series of battling displays, Brazilian striker Patric is one of the few Gamba players who can head back to Osaka with his head held high.

Centre-back Gen Shoji, attempting to regain his best form after a disappointing spell in France and some injury problems, was also a positive, as was the emergence of 20-year-old livewire Shuhei Kawasaki, who grabbed a scintillating hat-trick in an 8-1 rout of Tampines.

The condensed nature of the coronavirus-affected campaign, which forced teams to play six matches in just 16 days, meant that coaches were always going to have to rotate, but Masanobu Matsunami's charges did look to struggle with the chopping and changing more than other teams.

Stronger displays could also have been expected from a key player like Takashi Usami, who boasts experience in Germany's Bundesliga from spells with Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim, Augsburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf, yet barely made a ripple in the competition.

The pressure is now on Gamba to put this recent disappointment aside and focus their attentions for the rest of 2021 on preserving their top-flight status.

Still, even if they do, considering they were runners-up in the J1 League just last season, it might not be enough to rescue this season from being a complete failure.