Andres Iniesta never really had to juggle the demands of continental competition and the struggle to avoid domestic relegation while he was winning four Champions League titles in Europe. (More Football News)
The ex-Barcelona midfielder will be mindful of both those things when he lines up for Vissel Kobe against Yokohama F. Marinos on Thursday in an Asian Champions League second-round contest featuring two Japanese clubs. The big-spending Kobe is regarded as the outsider.
Yokohama, guided by Australia’s Kevin Muscat, is in strong form and sits five points clear at the top of the J.League. Kobe is in the dropzone, just two points above last place in the standings with nine games of the season remaining.
Kobe’s new signing, Stefan Mugosa, has dismissed concerns that Asian Champions League will distract the club from its domestic duties.
"If we win this match against Yokohama, we will get much more confidence for the league, and it will be easier," the striker said in comments published by the Asian Football Confederation. "But we need to think game-by-game right now.”
Mugosa was top scorer in the South Korean league until his June transfer from Incheon United and is looking forward to linking up with the 38-year-old Iniesta, who joined Kobe in 2018, in continental competition.
"Everybody knows that he is one of the best players in the world in his position," Mugosa said. "It’s a pleasure to play together with him. Of course, there are other great players at the club too, but he is world class.”
Yokohama has won four Japanese titles but has never progressed past the second round, the first round of the knockouts, in the Asian Champions League.
After topping a group containing two-time continental champion Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea, Australia's Sydney FC and Hoang Anh Gia Lai of Vietnam, Yokohama is aiming to go all the way.
"We want to be playing in the very last game of the tournament, there’s no shying away from that,” Muscat said. “I thought it was an exceptional campaign. It possibly looked straight forward - it was anything but that.”
Whatever happens, one Japanese club is guaranteed to make the quarterfinals.
South Korea is in a similar position, with Daegu FC against Jeonbuk Motors.
Southeast Asia has two representatives in the Round of 16, with Johor Darul Tazim of Malaysia taking on the two-time champion Urawa Reds of Japan and Thailand’s Pathum United meets Kitchee, the first team from Hong Kong to reach the knockout stages.
All the eastern zone games are being played in Japan and are straight elimination for the losing teams. The winners advance to the quarterfinals Monday, with semifinals scheduled three days later.
The western half of the draw, the tournament is divided into two geographic zones until the final, will not be held until next February.