TOKYO, Japan, April 14 – Andres Iniesta has won virtually everything with Barcelona and Spain, but the legendary midfielder faces the end of his stellar career in the quagmire of a relegation dogfight.
The 37-year-old joined Vissel Kobe in Japan in 2018 after making over 600 appearances for Barcelona, where he won the Champions League four times and lifted nine La Liga titles.
But the 2010 World Cup winner now faces the possibility that he could be embroiled in a relegation battle for the first time in his career unless his side can quickly change their season.
Vissel made a disastrous start to the J-League campaign and sat one foot from the table after failing to win in 10 games so far.
Iniesta looked uncomfortable at times and endured the indignity of being muscled in the build-up to an FC Tokyo goal last week as Vissel blew a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1.
They sacked manager Atsuhiro Miura last month and replaced him with Spain veteran Miguel Angel Lotina, a man whose CV includes relegations with five different clubs in his home country.
“Where we failed was that we didn’t make the most of our chances and we weren’t able to see any defensive games either,” said Iniesta, who won 32 major trophies with Barcelona. season.
“All we can do is keep looking for a win and keep trying to improve,” said the midfielder, who turns 38 next month.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this when he moved from Barcelona to the port city of Kobe in 2018 on a three-year deal worth $30m a year.
In May last year, he signed a two-year extension to what will surely be his last contract as a player.
– Barcelona connection –
Vissel is Japan’s richest club and is owned by tech billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, head of e-commerce giant Rakuten.
Iniesta lined up at Vissel alongside German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski and former Spain team-mate David Villa, and now plays with former Barcelona duo Bojan Krkic and Sergi Samper.
But Iniesta struggled to find success in Japan, with an Emperor’s Cup win in 2019 the only trophy he managed to add to his huge collection.
Lotina, who took charge for the first time in Vissel’s 1-0 loss to Cerezo Osaka on Sunday, knows he has a lot of work to do.
“We are getting information from people at the club to find out what happened to put us in this situation,” Lotina said after his new job was revealed last week.
“When it happens, it’s usually not for one reason, but for multiple reasons.”
Iniesta and Vissel will be hoping to breathe life into their dismal season when they travel to Thailand to play in the AFC Champions League group stage, with their opener on Tuesday against Hong Kong’s Kitchee.
They will also face host nation Chiangrai United, but not port Shanghai, which pulled out this week due to a tough lockdown imposed on the Chinese city to fight a coronavirus surge.
Lotina believes Vissel ‘still has time’ to bring their season back from the brink of disaster and it would be a shock if they fail to top their Champions League group.
“We didn’t have a lot of time and I couldn’t do everything I wanted, but today’s game was very useful for me to see how we can improve from now on.” , Lotina said after Sunday’s loss.