Tomoki Iwata relishing Celtic tension as J League drama leaves him craving nerve shredding finale

Tomiki Iwata had never felt tension like it. The final day of the 2022 J-League season and his club Yokohama Marinos were two points clear at the top of the table.

They had to avoid defeat against Vissel Kobe to secure their first championship in three years. And to deny rivals Kawasaki Frontale their third straight league triumph. A 3-1 victory wrapped it up, sparked wild celebrations in Yokohama and gave Iwata his first taste of success.

Now the 27-year-old midfielder is in a similar situation at Celtic. With the Marinos in 2022, Kevin Muscat’s side had a poor start to the campaign then clawed their way back into the title race. This season at Parkhead it has been slightly different. Brendan Rodgers’ men were in control of their Scottish Premiership pursuit before being reeled in by rivals Rangers. With five games to go, the Hoops are back in charge but it could go to the wire.

And after what he experienced in Yokohama, the Japanese star is relishing the pressure. He’ll never forget his first big trophy win in his homeland and the Hoops ace hopes for the same outcome in Glasgow.

As he prepared for today’s clash with Dundee at Dens Park, Iwata said: “That season, 2022, I felt a different type of pressure to what I was used to because we were going for the title.

“As the games got less and less in the season – and the pressure built up – we couldn’t play the way we wanted to. We felt that with maybe five games remaining. So we really started to feel how difficult it was going to be to win it.

“On the last day both ourselves and Frontale won their games and we got the title by two points“We were ahead going into the final day against Vissel Kobe and had to make sure we didn’t lose.

“It was a lot of pressure but I don’t fear pressure. We had confidence that we could win the league and we managed to achieve it.

“The celebrations in Yokohama were incredible and it was a great experience for me. It was the first title of my career so it was a fantastic moment to be there celebrating with my team-mates. And of course, everyone connected with the club was really happy that we had managed to become champions.”

Having lived that tense experience in the J-League, Iwata is convinced that it’s beneficial to him now at Celtic Park. Rodgers’ side are renowned for producing when it really matters domestically. And even if it goes to the last day of the season, like it did with Yokohama, Iwata believes Celtic are built to deal with it.

He said: “Experiencing that pressure with Yokohama in 2022 is definitely helping me here at Celtic because it’s similar. We still have some games left here this season but I don’t feel nervous or not confident enough going into it.

“We have our own style of play at Celtic and as long as we prepare properly to play our own way, we’ll be ready to get the results we want in the title race. You never know what’s going to happen in the future so I can’t comment on whether it will come down to the last day.

“But we’ll be ready for it. We’ll be prepared for every game now and, as long as we do that, we’ll be ready to win the title. We’re taking each game as it comes and we’ll see what happens.”

In that title-winning campaign with Marinos, Iwata was voted the J-League’s Player of the Year. That’s why former boss Ange Postecoglou was so keen to bring him to Parkhead that summer.

So far, he has failed to really ignite in Scottish football. But he has one of the hardest jobs in the country trying to dislodge Celtic skipper Callum McGregor from his role as the Hoops’ midfield general.

Iwata said: “I don’t feel that it’s difficult to replace Callum. I just look at him as my teammate and he’s a guy I can learn from. He’s a fantastic player who can take my game to another level. I respect him so much as a team-mate. He’s a top player for this club.”

But if he can’t shift McGregor from his position as Celtic’s sitter, has his high-profile move from Japan to Europe been worth it? Iwata has only made 37 appearances for the Hoops in two seasons under Postecoglou and now Rodgers.

And he admits that so far his Celtic career HASN’T panned out the way he’d hoped. But he’s not willing to accept that his switch to Scotland hasn’t been successful. And he’s told Hoops fans there’s still far more to come from him at the club.

Iwata, a Japan international, said: “I haven’t played as much at Celtic as I expected so, until now, it has been below my expectations. However, if you ask me if it’s been a failure or a success, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s been a failure.

“This is still a great experience for me to learn from. It’s part of my career and my journey as a footballer.

“I only take the positives from it and I want to make more progress now. I’m only thinking forwards. Obviously, I don’t have any regrets about signing for Celtic.

“I’m so happy to play for this club and I’ve enjoyed every minute that I’ve been on the pitch. I’m looking forward to seeing what more I can achieve at Celtic.”