After four no-shows at high-capacity stadiums in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area and just one Kanto appearance last October in Kawasaki, Andres Iniesta finally stood on a pitch in the capital in front of over 38,000 fans.
Even Saturday’s persistent rain stopped to take in Saturday’s action at Ajinomoto Stadium, as Iniesta scored in the 49th minute to give his Vissel Kobe a crucial 1-0 win over J. League first-division leader FC Tokyo.
“The most wonderful goal is a goal that helps your team win points,” a smiling Iniesta told a crush of reporters. “We needed this win and I understand how important it is to beat the league leader.”
With a temperature of just 17 C at kickoff, the poor weather threatened to put a damper on Tokyo’s first night game of the season. The occasion marked the unveiling of Ajinomoto’s new LED floodlights as well as wraparound digital billboards on the main and back stands, both of which were installed ahead of September’s Rugby World Cup.
The match marked the J. League debut of Thorsten Fink, the German manager who replaced Takayuki Yoshida during the recent international break. The former Basel and Hamburger SV boss had limited time to work with his players after his work visa was only approved on Friday.
“Tokyo doesn’t have many weak points, so we focused on our strong points,” said Fink after the match. “They are a strong team with speed and skill, which makes this win even more valuable for us.”
Vissel definitely appeared to play with the J. League’s fabled “new manager energy,” attacking assertively and regularly creating periods of sustained possession in the Tokyo half.
While the crowd had plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” for Iniesta and his Spanish teammate David Villa, it was midfielder Keijiro Ogawa who saw the best chance of the first half go wasted when his shot on a wide-open net in the 14th minute clanged off the crossbar.
Villa meanwhile paired up well with Brazilian striker Wellington, whose efforts on both sides of the pitch were a key contribution.
“Wellington and Villa have scored a lot of goals this season and I wanted them to play together. The combination worked very well for us today,” reflected Fink.
Tokyo threatened even more frequently thanks to a potent counterattack that blazed up the pitch following numerous Vissel turnovers. But luck wasn’t on the side of Diego Oliveira, Tokyo’s leading scorer, as the Brazilian struggled to keep his aim on target in the first half and navigate around Vissel’s all-out defending in the second.
The game’s lone goal came in the 53rd minute, when defender Daigo Nishi’s cross found Iniesta completely unmarked at the far corner of the penalty area. The former Barcelona captain launched a rocket into the back of the net, leaving Tokyo goalkeeper Akihiro Hayashi looking embarrassed several steps off his line.
“Iniesta was a key player and showed his quality, not only with his goal but as a leader. We didn’t plan for him to play for 90 minutes but through his performance we saw his character,” said Fink.
“Because (of him) we were able to control possession and take advantage of his abilities.”
It was just the 10th appearance of the season for Iniesta and the first goal of the campaign for the league’s highest-paid player, who has struggled with muscle injuries.
“Personally the biggest mistake I can make is coming back when I haven’t fully recovered and getting injured again,” said Iniesta. “I didn’t plan on playing for 90 minutes but the condition of the pitch was good.
“I played a little lower than usual and focused on contributing to our possession. Tokyo played a 4-4-2 and I was able to get the ball in space and create attacks.”
Tokyo hunted for an equalizer through even more counters, but it was clear that the side missed the presence of former playmaker Takefusa Kubo, whose transfer to Real Madrid was announced just one day earlier.
The Korean duo of Na Sang-ho and Yu In-soo attempted to spark a comeback when they came on in the 64th minute and midfielder Shuto Abe played eight minutes in his J1 debut, but it was not enough for Tokyo which suffered just its second loss of the season.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Shimizu S-Pulse scored two goals after the 89th minute to earn a stunning 3-2 come-from-behind win over Yokohama F. Marinos at IAI Stadium Nihondaira.
At Saitama Stadium, Urawa Reds surrendered an early goal to An Yong-woo, but Tomoya Ugajin equalized in the 31st minute and Shinzo Koroki scored at the death to engineer a 2-1 comeback victory over Sagan Tosu.
Ryohei Michibuchi’s first-half goal sent Vegalta Sendai past Matsumoto Yamaga in a 1-0 final at Sunpro Alwin Stadium.
Ado Onaiwu scored for Oita Trinita while Nagoya Grampus’ Kazuya Miyahara equalized for a 1-1 final at Showa Denko Dome Oita, while Jubilo Iwata and Gamba Osaka finished in a scoreless draw at Yamaha Stadium.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5