On November 25, Rakuten Group’s Vissel Kobe reached another milestone on their quest to become the No. 1 soccer club in Asia. The AFC Champions League resumed action in Qatar. In their first match in the competition since February, Vissel handed rivals Guangzhou Evergrande FC of China a 3-1 defeat to go to six points and put themselves at the top of Group G.
With two more matches to go for Vissel in the group, the team is in a commanding position. However, the team has its work cut out if it hopes to bring home the Asian Champions League gold.
The road to victory
Vissel started 2020 off with a bang, winning the club’s first-ever title by winning the Emperor’s Cup on January 1 and securing its first-ever appearance in the Asian Champions League. Just over a month later, Vissel claimed its second title when it defeated the Yokohama F. Marinos in a shootout to win the Japanese Super Cup.
The team continued its hot start to the year by debuting in the AFC Champions League with a 5-1 victory over Malaysian champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim on February 12, followed by a 1-0 away victory over two-time Asian champions from Korea, the Suwon Samsung Bluewings on February 18. Unfortunately, 2020 then slammed the brakes on Vissel’s momentum when the AFC Champions League was forced to suspend the competition due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has the AFC Champions League changed in 2020?
When the competition began in early 2020, the AFC Champions League had already introduced a number of innovative changes to the tournament’s format, including automatic qualification for winners to the 2021 edition of the tournament and invites for both finalists to the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup in China. Another notable change is video assistant replay (VAR) technology, which makes its debut in the tournament from the quarterfinals onward.
The pandemic also required a number of changes. Most notably, games are taking place in competition bubbles in Qatar. All matches are held behind closed doors and, apart from competition and training, teams are confined to their hotels.
The exclusive Qatar-based setup has forced some teams to pull out of the competition, including Malaysian champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim. Originally slotted into the same Group G pool as Vissel, the club was denied permission by the Malaysian government to travel to Qatar and was forced to withdraw. This resulted in Vissel’s victory over Johor being rendered void, revoking the three points earned by Vissel earlier in the year, and leaving Group G with only three teams in contention, rather than the traditional four. Despite the challenges, Vissel has already qualified for the next stage of the tournament and is aiming to win its next two matches in order to finish atop Group G.
In a typical year, the Asian Champions League competition is stretched over a full season, but the organizers have had to get creative this year, moving to a compressed schedule. This likely offers an advantage to teams that are healthy and perform well in cup competitions.
How are Vissel’s prospects?
Despite sharing a group with former AFC Champions League winners Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Guangzhou Evergrande FC, Vissel have so far outclassed their competitors, outscoring their opponents 9-2 through three matches. The club’s leader, Andrés Iniesta, has been in peak form throughout the competition, dictating play and mesmerizing defenses as he works his magic across the pitch.
As evidenced by the club’s goal tally thus far, Vissel returns to the tourney with a powerful and well-balanced offensive attack. But as the tournament continues into the later stages and the level of competition increases, the club will undoubtedly look to Iniesta and his near-mythical ability to perform his best in high stakes matches to bring Vissel that much closer to achieving its goal of becoming the No. 1 soccer club in Asia.
Up next, Vissel once again takes on Guangzhou Evergrande FC this Saturday, November 28th.