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Is the Emperor's Cup enough for Iniesta and Kobe?

Saturday 21st December 2019
Along with fellow Barcelona legend, David Villa, Iniesta was brought to Japan to raise Vissel Kobe's profile.
Along with fellow Barcelona legend, David Villa, Iniesta was brought to Japan to raise Vissel Kobe's profile.

Background image: Warren Smith.

Andres Iniesta didn’t just play Spanish or European football at the highest level. He mastered it at dizzy heights unknown to most. Sixteen complete seasons mustered nineteen honours from across both Spanish and European shores. Add in the other wins from lesser-known and global competitions (Spanish Super Cups, European Super Cups, Club World Cups, etc.) Iniesta would average 2.18 trophies with Blaugrana every campaign. Remember that many great footballers retire without as much as single final appearance, Iniesta made winning with Barcelona a habit.

Former coaches describe him as the complete footballer, playing exceptionally well in any position. Possessing the ability to read games, encompassing all future progressions – than exercising the best route forward.

With such Spanish success, Iniesta was expected to bring good fortune to Vissel Kobe. One player can’t win titles by himself, but Iniesta simply shouldn’t finish tenth or eighth in any competition. Moving to Japan broke his long trophy run, presumably his expectations too. Rakuten felt cold water poured on their fiery aspirations - given the money put into the building the squad...

Acquiring David Villa, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Vermaelen, in addition to Andres, shows intent on succeeding in footballing competitions as well as sell tickets to visiting tourists. Hiring an experienced German coach in Thorsten Fink demonstrates yearning to assimilate to the European style. Building a team takes time, as Kobe’s jigsaw pieces aren’t fitting as well as intended.

Before each season’s kick-off, J.League clubs are encouraged to make a strapline for their campaign. Kobe pulled no punches for the 2019 banner, “to be the No. 1 club in Asia”. An outrageous objective, lacking any SMART-value to measure the success, as well as not being in any Asian continental football competition.

Despite a lacklustre league position, Vissel Kobe is attending an end-of-season soiree, as the Rakuten-backed club played consistently victoriously in the primary Japanese cup competition, the Emperor’s Cup.

Five wins with three clean sheets, Vissel Kobe reached the final. Giravanz Kitakyushu, as well as Omiya Ardija, were made to look like light work, to be expected given each is lower league opposition. Kobe cast them back to their respective divisions with empathic 4-0 victories. Kawasaki Frontale and Oita Trinita proved sterner tasks in latter rounds, but both to Fink’s flat 3-5-2 as well as Hotaru Yamaguchi’s scoring as he ripped open the score sheet in both games. All before dismantling Shimizu S-Pulse 3-1 earlier this morning.

So how many did Iniesta get in the run you ask?  One. He’s seldom played in the competition. Always rotated out to play in the league, it’s only earlier today he made his debut in the Emperor’s Cup. With the league having finished earlier this month, Fink decided to go for broke allowing the Barcelona legend to play in the cup.

With more Japanese players playing in these games, is there a good reason to consider that the foreign personnel are a detriment to the homegrown talent already the club? While some foreigners played in the cup run, all the goals had been scored by Japanese players until Iniesta's thirteenth-minute strike in the early hours of this morning.

Iniesta’s contract expires next season, but for many others, this could be their last chance at silverware. David Villa already announced his retirement come January, where Podolski errs toward Poland for a final swansong in his birth nation having long desired to finish his career there.

Superstars can be replaced with others who long for stardom coupled with infinite Rakuten gift vouchers, but the team takes a hit considering any solid progression to make Vissel Kobe consistent enough to win the J.League title. An Emperor’s Cup win allowing AFC Champions League inclusion next year may allow contract extensions or even pave future inroads fulfil grand dreams to becoming the pinnace of Asian football.

The opposition in the final, Kashima Antlers, is statistically the most successful football team in the country with 29 major honours since the inception of professional football in Japan back in 1992. Their last trophy celebration coming in the previous year, the AFC Champions League. Very much like Iniesta’s record, relatively few seasons go by where they don’t win something. They’ll challenge to the final whistle, such as the expectation from their fans.

The final takes place on January 1st, at 05:35 am GMT. Where they play Kashima Antlers at the new National Stadium in Tokyo. The structure has been put together for the upcoming Olympics, but the Emperor’s Cup final will be the first event to be staged there.

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Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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