Saitama – For nearly three years, Urawa Reds fans have waited for a chance to see Vissel Kobe captain Andres Iniesta in the flesh.
On Saturday, 4,917 got their chance — but it was goals from Tatsuya Tanaka and Kasper Junker that would bring them to their feet as Urawa overcame an error-strewn first half to win 2-0 at Saitama Stadium.
Tanaka’s header off a superb Koya Yuruki cross came just two minutes into the second half, allowing Urawa to hop onto the front foot much to the surprise of Kobe’s star-studded side.
“When we gave up that goal it was inexcusable,” Vissel manager Atsuhiro Miura said. “We lacked concentration, we were too loose. We shouldn’t have given up a goal at that time, and that threw off our balance.”
Iniesta — who celebrated his recent 37th birthday with a two-year contract extension — had been absent from Kobe’s squad in all of its previous trips to face Urawa since he arrived midway through the 2018 season, with his lone appearance at the 2002 World Cup venue coming in last year’s Fuji Xerox Super Cup against Yokohama F. Marinos.
The former Barcelona legend displayed his trademark dribbling and passing in a rare full minute appearance, but Vissel’s attacking corps failed to get past Urawa’s diligent back line and create any threats in the penalty area.
“We controlled the game in the first half, but we weren’t accurate enough in front of their goal,” Iniesta said. “In the second half, once they scored it became hard to develop our game.
“It was my first time playing 90 minutes in a while. I still have to find my rhythm, but I felt good about my play and it was a good match in terms of helping me get back into full fitness.”
Urawa’s fifth straight win was the third straight clean sheet for rookie goalkeeper Zion Suzuki, who was rarely troubled by the Kobe attack. The 18-year-old, who on Thursday was named to Japan’s under-24 squad for next month’s friendlies against Ghana U24 and Jamaica’s senior national team, impressed in the Levain Cup group stage before taking over the J1 starting role from veteran Shusaku Nishikawa.
“I’m very satisfied with Suzuki’s play and it’s a great accomplishment for him,” Urawa manager Ricardo Rodriguez said. “But that can only come because of how well the team is doing as a whole, and I want to congratulate him and the team.
“The players are performing well as a squad and individually so it’s becoming harder to choose our squad every week … it’s a good problem to have.”
Tanaka’s goal lit a fire under Urawa in the second half and he went on to assist Danish dynamo Junker, who scored his fourth J1 goal in three games and has quickly become a fan favorite.
“It’s not just the goals, but he’s starting to deliver good performances on a regular basis. It takes time for new players to adjust when they come in,” Rodriguez said. “In the second half he made a lot of defensive contributions. It’s good for a new player to contribute like that and I think he’ll continue to improve.”
The two teams won’t have to wait long to clash again after being drawn together in the Levain Cup’s playoff stage, with Kobe hosting on June 6 at Noevir Stadium and Urawa hosting the return leg on June 13 at Saitama’s Komaba Stadium.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.