KOBE - The fireworks around the Noevir Stadium pitch lit up as the players made their entrance.
The fireworks on the pitch took slightly longer.
With an open roof and a number of upgrades in place for this fall’s Rugby World Cup, the hallowed Kansai ground played host to 25,172 fans and a game with plenty of star power but just one goal as David Villa’s second-half effort gave Vissel Kobe a narrow win over struggling Sagan Tosu.
Both teams were looking to turn things around in the second round after disappointing opening weekends — Kobe lost its opener 1-0 at Cerezo Osaka, while Tosu was thumped 4-0 at home by Nagoya Grampus and 2018 top-scorer Jo.
Vissel manager Juan Manuel Lillo again fielded his all-star “VIP” trio of Villa, Andres Iniesta, and Lukas Podolski, with Brazilian defender Dankler making his J. League debut after joining on a full transfer from Portugal’s Vitoria earlier this week.
Newcomer Dankler seemed shaky at some points — earning a yellow card in the 31st minute — but was effective in containing Tosu’s biggest weapons, strikers Fernando Torres and Mu Kanazaki.
As Iniesta roamed the pitch putting out fires, it was Villa who created two of Vissel’s best chances in the first half. His half-volley in the 11th minute went slightly wide of the post, while a powerful shot following Dankler’s long pass from the back clanged off the crossbar in the 34th, much to the chagrin of the crowd.
Tosu did well to bottle up Vissel’s foreign talent, but created few chances of its own as the balance of power seemed to shift toward the host in the approach to halftime.
“I didn’t feel like we played defensively,” Tosu manager Luis Carreras said after the match. “We tried to connect the ball and attack as soon as we forced a turnover.”
The best chance by a Japanese player on either side came in the 41st minute, when Kobe’s Kyogo Furuhashi crashed into teammate Villa by mistake, managed to stay upright to receive the former Valencia star’s pass, and unleashed a strong right-footed shot that went just wide of the near post.
“We had a lot of chances in which we could have scored and you can’t evaluate the match without considering those,” Lillo said. “The match developed similarly to last week’s against Cerezo, and in general we were in control.”
Villa finally found his first J. League goal just nine minutes into the second half, when Yuji Takahashi’s botched clearance deflected off Hiroyuki Taniguchi and left the Spaniard with little more to do than chip the ball past Tosu goalkeeper Takuo Okubo and run to the corner to celebrate with his teammates.
“I’m happy for (Villa) both personally and for how he helped us get the win,” Iniesta said. “He’s a player who can score goals and that’s what we need to aim higher as a team.
“He’s a world-class player whether positioned as a top striker or on the wing. He’s someone who can bring stability to the team.”
Iniesta nearly created a second goal in the 67th minute when his short pass to Furuhashi arrived perfectly, but the 24-year-old striker was denied at point-blank range by Okubo.
Vissel captain Podolski as well missed several chances to open his 2019 account, the most egregious of which came in the 84th minute when his tame shot from just meters away was cleared by a defender.
The result left few positives for roughly 700 Tosu supporters to take back to Kyushu — the team has begun its season with two straight losses under Carreras, one of the growing legion of Spanish coaches who have taken charge of Japanese clubs in recent seasons.
“It was a close game that either team could have won, and we lost because we gave up a goal on a single mistake,” Carreras said.
“After (Villa’s) goal our players kept doing what they needed to do, and that’s something that we reflected on after last week’s match. I don’t think the result was ever clear until the final whistle.”
Elsewhere on Saturday, Edigar Junio scored twice to lead Yokohama F. Marinos to a 2-1 win over Vegalta Sendai at Nissan Stadium.
Brazilian striker Ademilson netted his own brace for Gamba Osaka, which won 4-2 at Shimizu S-Pulse, while Shuhei Akasaki also recorded two as Nagoya Grampus claimed a 2-0 victory over Cerezo Osaka.
At Saitama Stadium, Musashi Suzuki scored both goals in Consadole Sapporo’s 2-0 win over Urawa Reds.
FC Tokyo recovered from an early own goal to record a 3-2 win at Shonan Bellmare, while Matsumoto Yamaga won 1-0 at fellow promoted side Oita Trinita.