By Michael Church
(Reuters) - Andres Iniesta has set his sights on steering Asian Champions League debutants Vissel Kobe to the latter stages of the competition as the Spanish World Cup winner looks to finish a disappointing year on a high for the Japanese club.
Iniesta was on target for Kobe on Wednesday as the J-League side defeated twice champions Guangzhou Evergrande to become the first club to secure their place in the last 16 of the eastern half of the draw in the continental championship.
Vissel have endured a difficult domestic season, with coach Thorsten Fink fired in late September and Kobe still languishing in 11th place in the 18-team J-League despite owner Hiroshi Mikitani lavishing significant funds on his team.
But Iniesta is hoping a change of scenery and the win over Guangzhou in the club’s first game since arriving in Doha at the weekend can kick-start an improvement in Kobe’s fortunes.
“It hasn’t been easy in Japan, but in a different competition maybe the players have a different motivation,” the former Barcelona midfielder was quoted as saying on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) official website.
“This level of competition can push us higher. This is our first game, and we want to be here playing until the end. That’s our target.
“It’s our first win in Qatar, and we have six points now. This is very important for us to go to the next stage, and I think today we showed that we deserved the result. I think it’s very important for us now to keep going like this.”
Kobe beat Suwon Bluewings before the competition was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are guaranteed a top-two finish in Group G, which has only three teams after Malaysian’s Johor Darul Ta’zim were unable to travel to Qatar.
Fifteen clubs are playing in Doha in a biosecure bubble as the AFC attempts to complete the competition with a format which replicates that used in September and October for teams from the west of the continent.
Iranian side Persepolis have already qualified for the final and the side from Tehran will meet the leading team from the east of the continent in Doha on Dec 19.
“I’m very happy to get this result,” Iniesta said.
“In the league we really struggled to score goals, but also to stop them being scored against us, but today our defenders did well and organised well, and we were able to score three goals.
“We’ll keep fighting, and we’ll go as far as possible in this tournament.”
(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Editing by Ken Ferris)