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AFC Champions League – MVP Memories: Yasuhito Endo

Osaka: Ahead of the 2020 AFC Champions League (EAST) resumption, focuses on those who have lit up the competition as they recall their memorable campaigns. This week we feature Gamba Osaka icon and 2008 MVP, Yasuhito Endo.

Having already tasted Continental glory with his native Japan in 2004, Yasuhito Endo had to wait a further four years to enjoy similar success at club level.

We look back on his team's crowning glory as the 2008 MVP reflects on Gamba Osaka's finest hour.

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It's over a decade since Gamba Osaka's first and only AFC Champions League triumph, but Endo still recalls the tournament like it was yesterday.

The J.League side reached the final without defeat, ousting defending champions and domestic rivals Urawa Red Diamonds in the semi-finals.

Up against Australia's Adelaide United in the showpiece event, Gamba truly turned on the style and were Continental champions after a 5-0 aggregate win.

"It was really enjoyable," recalls the now 40-year-old Endo. "We won the first leg 3-0 at home, which meant we felt we'd probably be okay going into the second leg.

"We were able to enjoy the occasion. In the second leg we scored after just a few minutes so then we knew everything would be okay."

It's rare that any side get the chance to enjoy and, indeed, cruise through the second leg of a Continental final, yet that's exactly what Akira Nishino's men were able to do, firmly in the knowledge that their moment had arrived.

Having been crowned an Asian champion with the Samurai Blue in 2004, Endo made his AFC Champions League debut in 2006 and, at least on a personal level, he left his mark.

The midfielder scored in his maiden game, against eventual champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of Korea Republic, but a 3-2 defeat ensued. Endo netted again in wins over Vietnam's Da Nang and China's Dalian Shide, although the J.League side would ultimately fall at the first hurdle.

But in 2008, it was Gamba's turn to rise to the top of the Continent.

"We didn't lose a single game and won every match away from home. I think maybe because when we played away the other team would attack more, which made it easier for us, we could build on the counter.

"On the other hand, when they came to play at our ground they would be more defensive which made things more difficult for us to score goals."

Endo's recollection rings true. The J.League side were dominant in the group stage, going unbeaten and finishing seven points clear of second-placed Melbourne.

"The AFC Champions League is a great competition for players to learn about other countries, and it's also good for the club," said Endo.

"It's a competition you have to be involved in, and when you're not it's sad. The travel is no problem when you're playing teams in the likes of Korea Republic and China, but Australia is a little tough. Syria was far too."

Homs-based Al Karamah, runners-up in 2006, were a daunting quarter-final challenge and, at more than 8,500 kilometres away, the farthest-flung destination in the draw.

Nevertheless, late goals from captain Satoshi Yamaguchi and Masato Yamazaki ensured a 2-1 win in Syria, before Yamazaki and Brazilian Roni were on target a week later at Expo '70 Stadium to wrap up a 4-1 aggregate win and book a date with defending champions Urawa in the semi-finals.

With the Japanese heavyweights meeting in the last four, it was Urawa who drew first blood as Hajime Hosogai put them one up in the first leg in Osaka, but parity was restored with nine minutes remaining as Endo side-footed home a penalty for his first goal of the campaign.

And the home of the holders was the perfect setting for Endo to deliver his best performance yet. The Gamba No7 laid on the goals for Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Myojin, before he turned scorer himself, finishing off an excellent team move to claim a 4-2 aggregate win.

"I scored twice and made two assists, and my level was improving as we progressed in the tournament," he recalled. "In the group stage I didn't do anything, just made passes, but then I started to find my form in the quarter-final and semi-final.

"It was the most memorable moment for me. Not only was it important to get to the final, but the match took on extra meaning for us as we had to play against our perennial rivals, Urawa Reds.

"It was a big win for us in the second leg. Playing both semi-final games in our home country against such big rivals was very special."

Reflecting on the final itself, in which Endo scored in the first leg, the Gamba icon admitted the side had been in confident mood going into the competition climax. A state that was justified by a dominant performance.

"It was everyone's first ACL final, but we just treated it in the same way as every other game. We had real confidence that we wouldn't lose, so we didn't feel any real pressure. We thought Adelaide would be a strong opponent, but then we won the first leg 3-0."

The game was as good as over four minutes into the return meeting.

Lucas tapped in from a few yards out, before the striker made it 2-0 on the 15-minute mark as the visitors cruised into a five-goal lead that allowed them to see out the remainder of their final knowing their crowning glory had arrived.

Endo's performances won him the playmaker the MVP award as he added the Continent's most prestigious club competition to a trophy cabinet that was rapidly filling with both collective and individual accolades.

"We had a party when we came back to Japan, but we had a J.League game fairly soon afterwards so we couldn't do a parade or anything with the supporters which was a shame," added Endo, whose side reached the semi-finals in 2015.

"I want Gamba to win the competition again in our new stadium – although we'll have to wait a little while for that."

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