SAITAMA – Once again, the stage was set for Andres Iniesta to dazzle in front of a gigantic crowd at Saitama Stadium.
But once again he was a no-show, disappointing large contingents of both traveling supporters and media who anticipated a chance to see the former Barcelona legend play in one of Japan’s grandest stadiums.
Not that it mattered much for Urawa Reds fans, who watched their team grind out a 1-0 win over a Vissel Kobe rocked by internal struggles over the past week.
It was hardly as dominant as the 4-0 win Urawa recorded over Kobe on Sept. 23, 2018, in front of an even bigger crowd than Saturday’s 54,599, but it still counted for a full three points.
“We had a tough task of defending against a team that was constantly going for the ball,” Urawa manager Oswaldo Oliveira said. “That we did so is incredibly valuable and I think we deserved the win.”
Five days after the resignation of Vissel manager Juan Manuel Lillo, the first squad from his replacement Takayuki Yoshida included neither Iniesta nor the injured David Villa.
“We haven’t changed from Lillo’s basic philosophy,” Yoshida said after the match. “I wanted us to be a bit faster in our transitions and press a little higher.”
One star foreigner in Vissel’s starting lineup was Lukas Podolski, who stepped down as team captain on Tuesday before raising questions about the state of the Kobe locker room with a cryptic tweet on Wednesday.
“For the last three or four weeks our team hasn’t been in (the best state), and I’d been discussing things with our manager,” Podolski said. “I looked inward and didn’t see a clear way forward, so I turned in the captain’s mark.”
Urawa’s attack showed promise from the outset and it took less than 10 minutes for the host to find its way onto the scoreboard, courtesy of a Shinzo Koroki penalty kick after the talismanic striker was brought down by Vissel defender Dankler in the box.
Vissel’s Sergei Samper, another former Barcelona player, saw yellow in the 17th minute after pulling down Yuki Muto in the center of the pitch. His team managed to organize periods of sustained attacking after Koroki’s penalty, but lacked finishing and rarely gave Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa much to worry about until Wellington’s header at the 30-minute mark.
Kobe was perhaps lucky to avoid a second Reds penalty kick in the 36th minute when defender Leo Osaki’s goal-line clearance had Urawa players calling for a handball. The second of three corner kicks following that play nearly did make the game 2-0 as Muto’s screamer of a shot required a fantastic save by Kim Seung-gyu.
Yoshida called for patience from his Vissel players at halftime and they responded with a series of promising attacks to start the second half, including a Podolski effort that inspired a point-blank save by Nishikawa.
“We created more chances in the second half but you need to score in those situations,” said Yoshida. “We didn’t play poorly and we just have to keep going on the path we’re on.”
Urawa was handed a setback in the 56th minute when Daiki Hashioka suffered an injury to his left leg near the sideline, forcing Tomoya Ugajin to come on in relief at the same time that Kazuaki Nagasawa replaced Ewerton.
Quenten Martinus also came on for Yosuke Kashiwagi with 20 minutes to go after the dead-ball specialist suffered a minor muscle injury and walked off under his own power.
“We played with very short passes, we needed more space to open them up,” Martinus said. “But with three players coming off (because of injury) we couldn’t change (our tactics) in the way that we wanted.
“I think if me or maybe Andrew (Nabbout) could have pushed up, (Vissel) wouldn’t have had so much time to pressure us.”
The Reds’ wall did hold against a Kobe attack that hunted for an equalizer until the final whistle, but seemed to lose some of its intensity after Podolski was subbed out for Junya Tanaka.
“We weren’t able to press, but our defenders won 1-on-1 situations in our penalty area and I want to praise their efforts,” said Oliveira. “They stopped a lot of attacks and defended well.”
Elsewhere on Saturday, Consadole Sapporo cruised to a 3-0 Sapporo Dome win over Yokohama F. Marinos to end a streak of two straight home losses.
At Sunpro Alwin Stadium, Daizen Maeda’s 10th-minute goal sent Matsumoto Yamaga to a 1-0 victory over Sagan Tosu, leaving the Kyushu side in last place with just one goal scored and 12 allowed.
At Toyota Stadium, Nagoya Grampus claimed its first win since March 30 with a 1-0 result over Jubilo Iwata as Jo scored his fourth goal of the season.
Elsewhere, Kashima Antlers defeated visiting Vegalta Sendai 1-0 on a Tomoya Inukai goal in the 66th minute, while Shimizu S-Pulse topped Cerezo Osaka as Koya Kitagawa scored the lone goal at IAI Stadium. Gamba Osaka and Oita Trinita settled for a 1-1 draw. Gamba’s Yasuhito Endo tied the match with a 71st-minute goal.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5