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Debutants Vissel Kobe seeking AFC Champions League semi-final joy against Ulsan Hyundai FC

Doha: Having plied their trade in the second tier of Japanese football as recently as 2013, Vissel Kobe have defied all odds to reach the 2020 AFC Champions League (East) semi-final where they lock horns with Korea Republic’s Ulsan Hyundai FC at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on Sunday.

After winning their first-ever Emperor's Cup title in 2019 to earn their AFC Champions League debut, Vissel Kobe had a 2020 domestic season full of ups and downs.

The port city club added the Japanese Super Cup in February, defeating Yokohama F. Marinos on a penalty shootout, but ended the J1 League season in a disappointing 12th place.

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The league results contributed to the departure of German boss Thorsten Fink, who was replaced by former sporting director Atsuhiro Miura just two months before the restart of the continental campaign in Doha.

A two-time AFC Asian Cup winner with Japan, Miura led the team to top Group G with two matches to spare.

Vissel Kobe had arrived in Doha with three points to their name from a 1-0 win over Suwon Samsung Bluewings back in February, and the withdrawal of Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim meant the Japanese side needed just three more points to top the group.

The points were duly secured with an emphatic display against Guangzhou Evergrande as Kyogo Furuhashi netted at both ends and late goals from Douglas and Andres Iniesta sealed a 3-1 win over Fabio Cannavaro’s men.

With qualification confirmed, coach Miura rotated his squad in consecutive 2-0 defeats which did little to impact their final standing at the summit of the group.

Having edged Guangzhou Evergrande in the group stage, another Chinese powerhouse awaited Vissel Kobe in the Round of 16, and they proved equal to the challenge as Andres Iniesta and Daigo Nishi scored either side of the half time break to propel them past Shanghai SIPG.

The quarter-final draw brought about a replay of their encounter with Suwon Samsung Bluewings, and despite going down to an early goal, Furuhashi was again on scoring duty, sending an intelligent free-kick underneath the wall for the equaliser.

2020 AFC Champions League (East) - Quarter-final: Review

All of 120 minutes were not enough to separate the sides but Vissel Kobe players kept their composure, scoring all their efforts from the spot to seal a 7-6 penalty shootout win and book a date with Ulsan Hyundai in the semi-final.

"Tomorrow we play against an Ulsan Hyundai team whom we know is a strong team with quality players. Our preparations for tomorrow’s match did not start after the quarter-final, we have been preparing for every step of this competition since we were in Japan, so we want to show our quality on the pitch and play a good game so we can go further," said Miura.

"Having played 120 minutes last game, fitness might be a problem, but in this tournament, you cannot conserve your energy, you always have to give your best. No matter who will play tomorrow, they will do their best."

"There is a lot of pressure in tomorrow’s match, but it is not all negative, sometimes the pressure pushes you forward.

"A lot of our staff and fans in Japan are pushing us forward, we are preparing for this and it means to us more than a title, that pressure can help us, and we hope the players will respond to it positively tomorrow and we can get a result," he added.

Should Vissel Kobe reach the 2020 AFC Champions League final, they would become the first debutants to achieve that feat since Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.

They would also extend a proud record for Japanese clubs who have been involved in every AFC Champions League final since 2017.

Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR) v Vissel Kobe (JPN)
Venue: Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium
Kick-off: Sunday, 13:00 (UTC+3)

*Poll ends on December 13, 18:00 (UTC+8)

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