Iniesta fires Japan’s Vissel Kobe into last 16

Iniesta fires Japan’s Vissel Kobe into last 16
Vissel Kobe’s midfielder Andres Iniesta in action during the AFC Champions League Goup G match against China’s Guangzhou Evergrande on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 26 November 2020

Iniesta fires Japan’s Vissel Kobe into last 16

Iniesta fires Japan’s Vissel Kobe into last 16
  • They are now five points ahead of Guangzhou and Suwon Samsung Bluewings

DOHA: Andres Iniesta scored his first goal in the Asian Champions League as Vissel Kobe powered their way to the last-16 with a dominant 3-1 win over Fabio Cannavaro's Guangzhou Evergrande in their Group G clash on Wednesday.

The Spain and Barcelona legend fired a right-footed shot from the center of the box in the 84th minute to help the Japanese side consolidate their position at the top of their group with two wins from as many matches.

They are now five points ahead of Guangzhou and Suwon Samsung Bluewings and assured of a spot in the knockout phase after the group was reduced to three teams following Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta'zim's withdrawal from the tournament.

In another match on Wednesday, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors pipped Sydney FC 1-0 in Group H with Na Sung-eun scoring in the 44th minute.

It was the Australian side's third defeat in four matches while Jeonbuk revived their hopes with their first victory.

Iniesta, who was declared MVP of the match, had been an influential presence for Vissel Kobe throughout the encounter with his quick thinking and crisp passing, and that reflected in their first goal in the 44th minute at the Khalifa International Stadium.

The Spanish veteran dashed his way up on the left flank to control a long diagonal pass and after advancing further turned around near the goalline to tap the ball onto the path of the advancing Kyogo Furuhashi who struck with a clean, low shot from close range.

Furuhashi's personal joy at scoring lasted only 10 minutes as the forward first conceded a corner and then watched in horror as his attempted clearance from the resultant kick found his own net to give Guangzhou the equalizer.

Cannavaro made three substitutions in a desperate bid for victory after having drawn their opening game against Suwon Samsung Bluewings. But although the two-time champions enjoyed a couple of brief purple patches during which they had the Kobe defence under pressure, the goal they were looking for never materialized.

Vissel Kobe regained the lead in the 74th minute when Douglas, who had just come in five minutes prior, took advantage of a great back-heel from Daigo Nishi and blasted the ball home.

Brazil-born Elekson, now known as Ai Kesen, had a goal disallowed for off-side on eight minutes and when Iniesta struck two minutes later, it extended Cannavaro's misery in Doha.

"The result is bad. We tried but I know that something in my team is not clear. I don't know if they are afraid to play or they are not confident anymore," the Italian complained after the match.

"I need to try and do my best to give them the confidence to play. This is my job. I know they are very good players, and we can do much, much, much better."

Vissel Kobe had landed in Doha after a string of disappointing results back home, conceding a whopping 58 goals in 33 league matches and losing five games in a row.

But their coach Atsuhiro Miura was basking in joy on Wednesday, saying he was ready with a game plan against a side packed with several Brazilians.

"Guangzhou is a very strong side, they have several good Brazilian players but we analysed how they play and how to prevent them from playing to their strengths," said Miura.

"We did everything well and everything went how we wanted it to. That's why we got this result."

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool
Updated 17 January 2021

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool
  • Jurgen Klopp’s men could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them

LONDON: Liverpool and Manchester United face off on Sunday as the Premier League’s top two teams for the first time since 1997 — with the rivalry between England’s most successful clubs rekindled by a fascinating title race.

United top the table after the New Year for the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 thanks to an 11-match unbeaten run to take them past Jurgen Klopp’s men.

Liverpool have surrendered top spot after three league games without a win and could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them.

The last time United and Liverpool locked horns in a title race was 12 years ago.

Back then United were hardened winners under Ferguson, who saw off Rafael Benitez’s challengers to win a third consecutive league title.

Now it is United who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits are the “hunters” chasing the champions.

Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 with United firmly in Liverpool’s shadow, once famously said his goal was to knock them “off their perch” and he went on to win 13 league titles.

But United have been displaced as top dogs even in their own city by Manchester City.

And fans have been forced to watch Klopp spearhead another era of glory at Anfield, winning the Champions League in 2019 before ending the club’s 30-year wait for a league title last season — putting them just one behind United’s record tally of 20.

But, in a strange and at times soulless season in empty stadiums, the relentless consistency shown by Liverpool in recent
years has dropped off.

Hampered by a series of injuries, most notably to talismanic center-back Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool have already dropped more points in 17 games than they have in either of the past two seasons.

That has allowed United to overtake them despite a slow start to their own campaign.

Solskjaer’s men won just two of their opening six games, suffering a humiliating 6-1 reverse at the hands of Tottenham at Old Trafford.

But, on the road, United’s form has been remarkably consistent. Come Sunday, it will be almost a year to the day since they last lost an away game in domestic competition — on their last visit
to Anfield.

Since then Bruno Fernandes’ arrival has helped transform United’s fortunes. On Friday, the Portugal playmaker won his fourth Premier League player-of-the-month award in 2020 by picking up the prize for December.

“Unfortunately a good signing for United,” said Klopp.

“He is a very influential player for United obviously, involved in a lot of things.

“I know people talk mostly about the goal involvements, which is very important stuff, but he is a link-up in a lot of other situations as well.”

Without the silverware on his CV to rival Klopp or City boss Pep Guardiola, Solskjaer’s credentials for one of the biggest jobs in football are questioned every time he has a couple of bad results.

But the Norwegian has guided United into a position his more storied predecessors, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, could not manage.

“The last few years, there have been two teams running away with it already by the end of October,” said Solskjaer.

“Now, at least, we’re in it at half-way. We’re a much better side now than a year ago.”

Questions remain over whether United’s revival is for real or another false dawn, of which there have been several in the post-Ferguson era.

Liverpool’s three-decade drought without a league title stands as a warning of how far even giants can fall.

One of Klopp’s first iconic phrases when taking charge in 2015 was his ambition to change the fatalism around the club’s mentality from “doubter to believer.”

Should United become the first visiting side to win at Anfield in the league for nearly four years, it is they who will have the new-found confidence that a 21st league title in 2021 is possible.