Andres Iniesta arrived at Vissel Kobe amid plenty of fanfare in May 2018.

One of the most successful players in Barcelona's history, having won LaLiga nine times and four Champions League crowns among his haul of 35 trophies, Iniesta was brought to Vissel to deliver silverware.

Up until his arrival three years ago, Vissel had never won a trophy but during the Spain great's time in Kobe, the ambitious Rakuten-backed outfit have won the Emperor's Cup (2019) and Japanese Super Cup (2020).

Vissel also qualified for the AFC Champions League for the first time in their 55-year history in 2020, reaching the semi-finals.

Iniesta and Vissel are on track to feature in the Champions League again – Atsuhiro Miura's men are third in the J1 League this season and on course for their best finish in the top flight, three points clear of Nagoya Grampus in the race for the final qualification spot ahead of Sunday's showdown – as they seek to become kings of Asia.

"The team have been saying we want to become the number one team in Asia so the first big goal is to win the Asian Champions League," Vissel defender Leo Osaki told Stats Perform about the project in Japan.

"Of course we have to win the J1 League, we can't just be focused on the Champions League. But the biggest goal right now is to win the Champions League. We just have to finish third and hope we can play for the Champions League next season."

 

When Iniesta swapped Camp Nou to join captain Lukas Podolski at Kobe Wing Stadium, it brought more eyes onto the club and attracted a host of stars the following year.

Spain's all-time leading scorer David Villa, former Arsenal and Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen and Sergi Samper all followed Iniesta to Kobe.

Vissel's investment in Iniesta paid off in 2019 after conquering Kashima Antlers for their first ever piece of silverware before overcoming 2019 J1 League champions Yokohama F.Marinos on penalties in the Japanese Super Cup in 2020.

Since his debut, Iniesta has showed no signs of slowing down, with the 37-year-old maestro boasting 175 completed dribbles (second in the J1 League) and a 64 per cent success rate (third among at least 100 attempts) to go with 164 created chances (fifth) in 81 league appearances.

In total, captain Iniesta has scored 17 goals and supplied 17 assists to spearhead Vissel's cause under the ownership of Rakuten, who continue to dream big after buying the team from the Crimson Group in 2014.

"He didn't come here to finish his career. He came to win and you can see it in the training and locker room," Osaki said, with Vissel's 2021 squad including Vermaelen, Bojan Krkic and Samper. "I think bringing him into the team opened the path for other world-class players to come in and it attracted a lot of people to watch the J1 League and Vissel Kobe. In that point of view, it gave the team a positive reaction.

"For him playing with us, since the first day he came, there was a positive reaction. Watching him from behind, it's a dream come true because most of us were just watching him on TV.

"Playing wise, he demands a lot from everybody, not just players next to him but behind him, goalkeeper and strikers. In our bad times, he tries to talk to players and motivate them so the team doesn't fall apart.

"Winning that title changed everything in a good way," Osaki added. "Since it was the first title in the club's history, that boosted the confidence for everyone. Also the expectations got higher. Winning those two titles changed a lot."

"I think we haven't accomplished anything, so the job isn't finished. We have to play in the Champions League and become the number one team in Asia. We've made progress in terms of getting two titles. The team had never won any titles, so that was big progress," the 30-year-old said.

"Playing in the Champions League gave us experience and confidence, which has helped us this season. In the Champions League, we didn't end up winning but I think that experience gave us confidence and that's why we are in this position now."

 

Since Iniesta's arrival, Vissel have ranked third in the J1 League in possession (57.2 per cent), passing accuracy (85.5 per cent) and shooting accuracy (47.3 per cent), while they have outperformed their expected goals (xG) value of 171.4 by scoring 183 goals – the fourth most in that span.

"Bringing in Andres and all those world-class players always gives a positive reaction to the team but at the same time, fans are like 'you have these players, so you have to win'. But football isn't that easy," he added.

"Of course we have quality players and we play with 11 players, but it's a team sport. It takes time. Fans can't wait, they want results instantly. We struggled in the beginning and we were focused on possession and everything but now we are probably 50 per cent counter-attack and 50 per cent possession - and we started getting results."

He added: "I think sometimes we focus on the project too much in the past. Of course, we want to play out from the back, press the ball and dominate the game but sometimes we focus on that too much. At times we had 60-70 per cent possession but we couldn't get results or win. We're still working on that actually, playing out of the back. We kind of added a different kind of style, just go forward at times.

"Now, we're focused more on the result. At times we play good and at times we don't, but still focusing on the result is keeping us in this position now."

It is a new era under Ange Postecoglou at Parkhead.

Tasked with leading an embattled Celtic back to the Scottish summit, having been dethroned by bitter rivals Rangers last season, Postecoglou is slowly putting his stamp on the club.

Prised from Yokohama F.Marinos after ending the club's 15-year J1 League title drought in 2019, Postecoglou has returned to Japan to raid Andres Iniesta's Vissel Kobe for Kyogo Furuhashi.

Postecoglou knows Furuhashi well from their time together in Japan, where the 26-year-old forward has starred since arriving from second-tier outfit FC Gifu in 2018.

Regarded as one of the country's most exciting talents, the Japan international brings plenty of goals, pace, creativity and dribbling ability to Glasgow, with Celtic fans hoping he can follow in the footsteps of country great Shunsuke Nakamura - who won six trophies during his time in Scotland.

Stats Perform looks at the numbers behind Furuhashi, using Opta data.

Endorsed by Barca great

If there is one player who knows a thing or two about succeeding in Europe, it is former Barcelona captain Iniesta.

Iniesta - the most decorated Spanish footballer of all time thanks to 35 trophies at Camp Nou - was lured to Japanese club Vissel in 2018, the same year as team-mate Furuhashi.

Furuhashi tops the league's scoring charts this season with 15 in 21 appearances for third-placed Vissel, three more than ex-Brazil international Leandro Damiao (Kawasaki Frontale), Anderson Lopes (Consadole Sapporo) and Ado Onaiwu (F.Marinos).

He scored in his farewell appearance for Vissel on Saturday, the opening goal in the 1-1 draw with Cerezo Osaka.

Only Kawasaki's Yu Kobayashi (44) has scored more goals in J1 League than Furuhashi since his first appearance in the competition (August 5, 2018).

"To be honest, Kyogo absolutely has the talent to play in Europe," Iniesta said previously. "He's leading the J1's scoring chart, but it's not just that. He's got strong technique, and I believe he can succeed in Europe."

Since his J1 League debut three years ago, Furuhashi has been involved in 58 goals (42 goals and 16 assists), the most number in this period.

"I'm sure he's got scouts watching him already, but it's going to be tough for us because he scores a lot of goals," Iniesta added.

"It'll be tough but if he goes to Europe, I'll be incredibly happy for him, because for Japanese players it's a dream to play in Europe."

Ange turns to familiar face as Celtic rebuild

Furuhashi evidently left his mark on Postecoglou in Japan.

Coming up against Postecoglou's F.Marinos, Furuhashi scored three goals across all competitions.

On paper, Furuhashi seems to be the perfect fit for Postecoglou's high-octane, attacking style of football, having been involved in 106 shots (82 shots himself and 24 chances created) - the highest figure in J1 League this season.

Before his farewell appearance on Saturday, Furuhashi had the highest non-penalty expected goals (10.9), best non-penalty xG per shot (0.14), most shots following a carry (30) and most shot involvements following a carry (37) in the competition in 2021.

"We are delighted to bring Kyogo Furuhashi to Celtic. He is a player of real quality and clearly someone I know well," Postecoglou said after a four-year deal was agreed following the arrivals of Liam Shaw, Joey Dawson, Osaze Urhoghide, Liel Abada and Bosun Lawal.

Furuhashi - who has managed three goals in six appearances for Japan, with only two starts - will now test himself in Europe.

He has won the most points thanks to his goals and assists in the league this season (16 points).

Points won thanks to a player's goal is based on how many points a team would have accrued had a certain player not scored in that game at all. For example, a hat-trick in a 6-1 win gains no points, whereas one in a 1-1 draw gets one, two in a 2-1 win gets three, two in a 2-0 win gets two and so on.

"I think he will add something special to our squad and I am sure the way he plays will excite our supporters," Postecoglou said. "We look forward to welcoming him to Celtic."

Andres Iniesta has agreed a new two-year contract with J1 League side Vissel Kobe.

The Japanese club announced on Tuesday, Iniesta's 37th birthday, that he was extending his deal until 2023.

Iniesta moved to Japan in 2018 after a glittering 22-year career with Barcelona came to an end.

The midfielder helped Vissel Kobe win the Emperor's Cup final on January 1 last year and qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time. They also won the Japanese Super Cup in February 2020.

"I'm still very motivated to continue this project," Iniesta told reporters. "I had a strong feeling when I came here three years ago, and I still have that same feeling now."

Iniesta, who scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, won 30 major trophies in his storied career for Barca including nine LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues.

Vissel Kobe were purchased in 2014 by the billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, whose e-commerce company Rakuten are major Barca sponsors.

After inconsistent results and tensions behind the scenes amid four changes of head coach, Vissel Kobe managed to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League after the competition resumed following the coronavirus pandemic.

They were beaten 2-1 by eventual champions Ulsan Hydunai, with Iniesta sidelined due to a thigh injury.

"There have been some tough times over the past three years... but I realise we've made history with a first title and ACL appearance," Iniesta said.

"From myself and my family, I want to thank the people of Kobe and Japan. With their love, respect and hospitality, this place has really become our home."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.