What a difference a year makes. Vissel Kobe will certainly attest to that.
12 months ago, the J1 League heavyweights look virtually shellshocked by how they began their campaign.
With just two points from their opening six games, the heavily-fancied outfit -- boasting stellar names such as ex-Barcelona trio Andres Iniesta, Bojan Krkic and Sergi Samper as well as Japan internationals Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto and Hotaru Yamaguchi -- found themselves closer to the bottom of the table rather than at the top, where many had expected them to be.
It was woeful start that Vissel were barely able to recover from.
At one stage, they were rock bottom of the table with a competition-high 13 defeats from 24 outings and relegation from the top flight of Japanese football looked a realistic if previously-unthinkable prospect.
But Vissel eventually steadied the ship as much as they could, winning ten of their final 13 league matches to finish the term 13th in the 18-team competition -- safe, but nowhere close to what could have been deemed an acceptable campaign.
Just six games into the 2023 season, things are looking drastically different.
Vissel are currently back where many had expected them to be last year, top of the J1 League with five wins from six games and the only blemish so far a narrow loss to AFC Champions League finalists Urawa Red Diamonds back in March.
Interestingly enough, Iniesta is yet to feature this season along with Samper, who is still on the comeback trail after a cruciate ligament injury last March that ruled him for the majority of 2022.
Bojan left the club at the end of the year and has since retired while promising defender Yuki Kobayashi, one of the few bright sparks from last term, has since earned a move to Scottish Premiership giants Celtic.
So where has their improvement come from?
Quite simply, Vissel -- in spite of last year's woes -- remain a star-studded outfit, boasting players not only of quality but vast experience and a winning mentality.
And after a season of despair, those seasoned campaigners look determined to avoid a repeat.
Having scored just seven league goals in the previous campaign, Osako already three to his name in 2023 and is averaging one every other match.
Muto, another who used to call the Bundesliga his home, has also stepped up even if he is now more of a creative force out wide than an out-and-out goalscorer like before.
Yamaguchi, a perennial figure of leadership wherever he has gone, is also thriving with more freedom to push forward from midfield, and even full-back Gotoku Sakai -- who represented Japan at the FIFA World Cup twice in 2014 and 2018 -- looks reinvigorated, even popping up as an unlikely scorer of a double in a 4-0 rout of Gamba Osaka earlier in the season.
Then, there is former Urawa man Koya Yuruki emerging as a genuine star of the competition while the up-and-coming Mitsuki Saito and Daiju Sasaki have also been handy contributors, even if they are yet to establish themselves as guaranteed starters.
It has helped that in Takayuki Yoshida -- who was effectively the club's fourth different man at the helm in 2022 following the dismissals of Atsuhiro Miura and Miguel Angel Lotina which sandwiched interim coach Lluis Planaguma's short tenure -- Vissel have a tactician who is not familiar with the club, having also had a previous spell in charge, but also seems to be under less pressure after last season's woes - leading to a sense of ease that has also trickled down to his charges.
Vissel looked a formidable team not just because of their imports but also the quality local players at their disposal, and that is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that only one of the 12 goals they have scored in the J1 League so far this term has come from a foreigner in Jean Patric.
They could still get better once Iniesta and Samper return to action, and when fellow overseas signings such as Jean Patric and Stefan Mugosa earn their place in the starting XI and begin to contribute.
Vissel were always good enough to compete for top honours.
Having steadied the ship after some time in rough waters, the team from the port city of Kobe look ready to mount a title challenge, especially when it is now the turn of usual suspects Yokohama F. Marinos and Kawasaki Frontale to make shaky starts to the season.
Perhaps Vissel's legitimate tilt at being J1 League champions will just come 12 months later than expected.
Again, what a difference a year makes.