Player in Focus: Hiroki Iikura leading Vissel defense to verge of AFC Champions League

Player in Focus: Hiroki Iikura leading Vissel defense to verge of AFC Champions League

Vissel Kobe have clinched a top-four finish this season, ensuring their best league campaign in club history, but they have a chance to clinch AFC Champions League football next season with a result against second-place Yokohama F·Marinos.

Early in the campaign, Vissel’s success came because of Kyogo Furuhashi and their deadly attack, but Furuhashi was sold in the summer and the Ushi have remade their team. Yoshinori Muto was brought in to aid them going forward, while Andrés Iniesta’s sparkling form stabilized the midfield. But the big difference for Vissel has been a much-improved defense, and nobody is more responsible for that than Hiroki Iikura.

Ikura didn’t make his first start until late May, and didn’t take over the starting goalkeeper position until July, but he has been spectacular ever since becoming the main man between the sticks. He's allowed less than a goal per game this season and posted three clean sheets in his last five matches. As a much-needed veteran voice at the back for Vissel, he's not only stopped shots well but also commanded the back line with confidence, finding a good rapport with the likes of Thomas Vermaelen and Ryuho Kikuchi to organize the Kobe defense and limit opposing chances.

This weekend, Iikura takes on his former club when Marinos come to visit, led by MEIJI YASUDA J1 LEAGUE top scorer Daizen Maeda. While the Yokohama side have the division's most productive attack, Vissel are the top-flight's form team at the moment and have a chance to clinch a spot in next season's continental competition.

The stakes are high and no doubt any chance for Vissel to make a statement will rely heavily on Iikura's play in net.