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Andres Iniesta

Iniesta in relegation mire as Spain legend’s Japan move turns sour


Tokyo (AFP) – Andres Iniesta won pretty much everything with Barcelona and Spain but the legendary midfielder risks seeing out the tail end of his glittering career in the mire of a relegation dogfight.

The 37-year-old joined big-spending Vissel Kobe in Japan in 2018 after making more than 600 appearances for Barcelona, where he won the Champions League four times and scooped nine La Liga titles.

But the 2010 World Cup winner is now facing the possibility that he could become embroiled in a relegation battle for the first time in his storied career unless his side can quickly turn their season around.

Vissel have made a disastrous start to the J-League campaign and sit one spot off the foot of the table after failing to win in 10 games so far.

Iniesta has looked badly off the pace at times and suffered the indignity of being nutmegged in the build-up to an FC Tokyo goal last week as Vissel threw away a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1.

They fired manager Atsuhiro Miura last month and replaced him with Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Lotina, a man whose CV includes relegations with five different clubs in his home country.

“Where we’ve been coming up short is that we haven’t been making the most of our chances and we haven’t been able to see games out defensively either,” Iniesta, who lifted 32 major trophies with Barcelona, said earlier this season.

“All we can do is keep looking for a win and keep trying to improve,” said the midfielder, who turns 38 next month.

It was not supposed to be like this when he moved to the port city of Kobe in 2018 from Barcelona on a three-year deal worth a reported $30 million a year.

In May last year he signed a two-year extension for what will surely be his final contract as a player.

– Barcelona link –

Vissel are Japan’s richest club and are owned by tech billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, the head of e-commerce giant Rakuten.

Iniesta has lined up at Vissel alongside German World Cup-winner Lukas Podolski and former Spain teammate David Villa, and now plays with ex-Barcelona pair Bojan Krkic and Sergi Samper.

But Iniesta has found success hard to come by in Japan, with an Emperor’s Cup win in 2019 the only trophy he has managed to add to his massive collection.

Lotina, who took charge for the first time in Vissel’s 1-0 defeat to Cerezo Osaka on Sunday, is aware he has a big job on his hands.

“We are getting information from people at the club to find out what has happened to put us in this situation,” Lotina said after his new job was unveiled last week.

“When this happens it’s usually not for one reason, but several reasons.”

Iniesta and Vissel will hope to spark their dismal season to life when they head to Thailand to play in the group stage of the AFC Champions League, with their first game on Tuesday against Hong Kong’s Kitchee.

They will also face the host country’s Chiangrai United, but not Shanghai Port, who withdrew this week because of a tough lockdown imposed on the Chinese city to fight a coronavirus surge.

Lotina believes Vissel “still have time” to haul their season back from the brink of disaster and it would be a shock if they fail to top their Champions League group.

“We haven’t had much time and I wasn’t able to do everything that I wanted to, but today’s game has been very useful for me to see how we can improve from now on,” Lotina said after Sunday’s defeat.

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