Monday, May 27

Villa, Iniesta and Podolski at Vissel Kobe – Robben next?


Jason Dasey

THEY’RE all World Cup-winners, but with a combined age of 104, they bring a Dad’s Army flavour to the J.League at a premium price. So, how much value can David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski deliver for Vissel Kobe in the 2019 season?

This week’s signing of Villa from New York City FC completes the unprecedented big-spending of the mid-table club and sees Japan take over from China and India as the preferred sunset destination for aging superstars.

Villa turned 37 on Monday, the day that his one-time La Liga rival Luka Modric won the 2018 Ballon d’Or in Paris.

Since leaving Atletico Madrid at the end of the 2013-14 season, Villa was a raging success in Major League Soccer, winning the 2016 MVP award and scoring 80 goals in 124 appearances over four years. He even made an impact during a four-game loan spell in the A-League at the end of 2014, netting twice for sister club, Melbourne City.

But turning mediocre Vissel Kobe into a formidable force presents a different kind of challenge for a striker in his late-30s. Japanese football, with the middle of the season during the heat and humidity of summer, is tough. Games come thick and fast, sometimes three a week.

The arrival of 33-year-old Podolski last year failed to produce the quick success that billionaire owner Hiroshi Mikitani — CEO of electronics and internet powerhouse Rakuten, Inc. — was hoping for. They followed up ninth place in the 2017 J1 with 10th in the 18-team league this season, with 12 wins and 13 defeats.

Their fortunes did improve when former Barcelona whiz Andres Iniesta, 34, signed mid-season and fellow Spaniard Juan Manuel Lillo took over as coach in October. They ended the season with a four-game undefeated run, including victories over Nagoya Grampus (2-1) and Vegalta Sendai (3-2) last Saturday.

And now Dutchman Arjen Robben, who turns 35 in January, has been linked to the club, with Japanese media reporting on Wednesday that Vissel Kobe will target the winger who’s announced that he’ll be leaving Bayern Munich at the end of the season.

So, expectations will be much higher for the 2019 campaign that will begin in February after the Asian Cup. Vissel will surely be targeting a top-three finish that will earn them a place in the AFC Champions League, although the official statement accompanying Villa’s signing is aiming even higher.

“By adding Villa to its roster, Vissel Kobe aims to build on the foundation laid with the additions of Lukas Podolski and Andres Iniesta as it takes another step towards the club’s goal of becoming the number one club in Asia,” the statement read.

Villa is Spain’s all-time top scorer with 59 goals, winning the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup with Iniesta. At club level at Barcelona, they won two La Liga titles together, and a host of other trophies, including the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League.

Even at 37, Villa can be counted on for goals. In the 2018 MLS season, he scored 15 times in 26 matches as New York City finished third in the Eastern Conference.

Coach Lillo has experimented with different formations since his arrival two months ago. He has operated with Iniesta and Podolski as Number 10s, behind unheralded forward Kyogo Furuhashi, a late bloomer who came through the college system.

Furuhashi will probably need to make way for Villa, either pushing out wide or relegated to the bench.

Operating in a deeper position than usual, Podolski has hardly set the world on fire, with only 10 goals in 39 league matches, his frustration for all to see, on and off the pitch. The assists-king Iniesta has scored three times in 14 games and has been a more galvanising and graceful force, always the no-nonsense professional.

But Vissel’s problem hasn’t been scoring goals — their return of 45 from 34 games is respectable — but keeping them out. Having conceded 52 across the season, including five-goal thumpings at the hands of Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale within the space of the month, they had the sixth-worst defence in J1.

As far as a place to live, the port city of Kobe is a smart choice for Villa, within easy reach of the hustle-bustle of Osaka and the charms of Kyoto. By contrast, former Spain teammate Fernando Torres ended up in the isolated town of Tosu on the island of Kyushu after signing with Sagan Tosu in July.

“New country. New culture. New team-mates. Hello Japan. Hello Vissel Kobe,” Villa announced ahead of the move, before posting a picture with Iniesta on Instagram and the caption: “Together again!”

The sheer professionalism and durability of Villa will likely ensure that Vissel Kobe get their money’s worth. But to expect three 30-something icons to elevate the Cows — yes, that’s their nickname — to the mantle of Asia’s best club is like expecting this trio of World Cup winners to make international comebacks for Qatar 2022.

Jason Dasey is CEO of Singapore-based Cockatoo Media and host of Weekend Mornings on MoneyFM893.