Andres Iniesta and Daigo Nishi struck either side of the break as Vissel Kobe edged out Shanghai SIPG 2-0 to reach the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League yesterday.
But fellow Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos will not be joining them in the last-eight phase after they were stunned 3-2 by South Koreans Suwon Bluewings, who bounced back from a goal down to clinch a thrilling win with two of their goals coming in the final eight minutes.
Vissel Kobe flew to Doha with mixed feelings, having broken new ground in the domestic top flight by winning the Emperor’s Cup and the Super Cup early in the year but also suffering five straight morale-shattering defeats in the J1 league in November.
But yesterday’s spirited show put them just three wins short of the continental title, a possibility they would not have contemplated when they set out for their very first appearance in the competition. “This victory is not just for us, but for all the fans back in Japan who sent us their messages of support,” said Vissel Kobe coach Atsuhiro Miura.
The only concern was the possibility of Iniesta missing the next match after he had to substituted in the 65th minute with a thigh injury. Vissel Kobe lagged marginally when it came to ball possession but were more incisive with their forays keeping the Shanghai SIPG defence busy for long spells of time.
Spain and Barcelona legend Iniesta, who had scored his first goal in the tournament to help Vissel Kobe reach the round of 16 with a 3-1 win over Guangzhou Evergrande on November 25, was again in his element yesterday.
Playing behind lone striker Douglas, the 36-year-old produced trademark passes besides enjoying taking occasional potshots at the Shanghai SIPG goal, keeping goalkeeper Chen Wei on his toes.
But Wei couldn’t come to his team’s rescue in the 31th minute when Iniesta pounced on a perfect pass from Hotaru Yamaguchi just outside the box and dribbled his way up before placing a low drive between three defenders, the ball streaking under the keeper’s body and into the goal. Shanghai SIPG had a fine chance to draw level five minutes later from a free-kick but Oscar’s shot from just outside the box went marginally wide to the left. Vissel Kobe doubled their advantage five minutes after the break, Nishi lunging forward to make contact with a Kyogo Furuhashi cross from the left and leaving Chen flummoxed. Iniesta had another dash at the goal from 35 yards in the 65th minute before he was substituted.
Shanghai SIPG coach Vitor Pereira again blamed the busy schedule for his team’s lacklustre showing. “It is impossible to play seven games in 21 days and keep going at the same level,” he said.
Suwon Bluewings meanwhile stayed on course for their first Champions League title since the competition was launched in its current format in 2003. Brazilian Erik gave the Marinos a 1-0 lead at the break with a 20th minute strike, but the Koreans were a different team altogether after the break. They struck through Kim Tae-Hwan to draw level in the 57th minute and towards the end of play upped their tempo to go 3-1 ahead with goals from Kim Min-woo and Han Suk-jong in the final 10 minutes. A strike by Ado Onaiwu in the first minute of stoppage time added to the tension but Park Kun-ha’s side held on to seal their spot in the next phase.
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