Iniesta and Barca alumni in way of Victory’s Mooy reunion

Vissel Kobe’s former Barcelona midfielder Sergi Samper speaks to KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani about the J1 League club’s AFC Asian Champions League showdown with Isuzu UTE A-League side Melbourne Victory.

Vissel Kobe, spearheaded by Andres Iniesta, have made no secret of their quest to become kings of Asia but the Japanese powerhouse know they will have to be at their best in a “dangerous” AFC Champions League play-off against Melbourne Victory.

Watch the match live and free on 10 Play from 9pm AEDT on Tuesday. KEEPUP will also bring you updates and reaction.

FFA Cup champions Victory stand in the way of Vissel and the Champions League group phase, with the J1 League giants hosting the winner-takes-all play-off on March 15.

The winner of next week’s one-off showdown in Kobe will advance to Group J, alongside Aaron Mooy’s Chinese club Shanghai Port, Thai team Chiangrai United Kitchee of Hong Kong.

Former Barcelona midfielder Samper and Vissel are braced for their test at Noevir Stadium Kobe, highlighting Victory’s play-off upset against Kashima Antlers in 2020.

Speaking to KEEPUP, Samper said: “I know it will be difficult of course because I remember two years ago Kashima lost at home to an Australian team [Victory] in qualifiers.

“We will have to do a great game because it’s so dangerous, it’s only one game.”

“Last season we talk many times about qualifying for the Champions League and now we are there,” he continued.

“We have to play a qualifier and we know it will be difficult but we will fight. We have a great team, so we have confidence.”

It will be a reunion for former Granada team-mates Samper and Victory goalkeeper Ivan Kelava.

Kelava spent the 2015-16 season at LaLiga outfit Granada, where Samper was on loan from 2016 to 2017 from Barca.

“I know some players,” Samper said when asked about his knowledge of Victory. “I know they have a midfielder from Spain [Rai Marchan] and I know the keeper that I played with him at Granada.”

On Australian football and the growing influence of Spanish imports – Javi Lopez, Adrian Sardinero, Tomas Mejias, Juande and Marchan all in the A-League Men – Samper added: “I think it’s a really good country and the league is improving.

“Maybe in the next years more players will come there. Also, Australian players are good and let’s see what happens in the future.”

Expectations are once again high for Vissel in 2022.

Vissel are on the cusp of the Champions League group phase, having finished third in last season’s J1 League, behind winners Kawasaki Frontale and Yokohama F.Marinos.

The ambitious Rakuten-backed outfit also qualified for the AFC Champions League for the first time in their 55-year history in 2020, reaching the semi-finals.

“I think last season we made a really good job and now we have a strong team,” said Samper, with Kobe also boasting Bojan Krkic. “We want to make a really good season, to improve and we want to win titles. That’s the aim for this season.”

Prior to Iniesta’s arrival from Barca amid much fanfare in 2018, Vissel had never won a piece of silverware but since being lured to Japan, they have won the Emperor’s Cup (2019) and Japanese Super Cup (2020) with the Spanish great.

The 37-year-old maestro has showed no signs of slowing down since his debut four years ago as Vissel continue to dream big under the ownership of Rakuten.

Iniesta, who scored six goals and supplied four assists in the J1 League last season, has a goal and assist through four appearances (two starts) this term.

“He is a legend, he is our captain,” Samper said of his countryman. “He is very important for us, not only on the pitch but in the changing room. It’s so important for us.

“He can help on the pitch and outside. He wants to continue maybe two more years and we will enjoy playing with him of course.”

Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne, Samuel Umtiti, Sergi Samper, Denis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona in 2016.
David Villa, Sergi Samper #6 and Andres Iniesta #8 pose with the Emperor’s Cup after the 99th Emperor’s Cup final between Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers in 2020.