It’s AFC Champions League final-day at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh as the first leg between Al Hilal and, perhaps a bit surprising given expectations at the start of the season, Urawa Red Diamonds kicks off at 7:15PM local time. Two time ACL champions, and thrice runners up, Al Hilal have cruised through the tournament and have yet to record a single defeat in the current campaign. Progressing comfortably from each knockout round, with aggregate scores of 4-2(Esteghlal), 3-0(Al Ain) and 6-2(Persepolis).
Despite securing an early spot in the round of 16 and winning their group ahead of Shanghai SIPG, the ride has been far bumpier for the Urawa Reds. The 2007 ACL champions came back from 0-2 to beat Jeju United in extra time, then turned 1-3 into 5-4 against Kawasaki Frontale and finally eliminated SIPG by the odd goal to reach the final.
The Saudi giants have also gotten off to a fine start in the new domestic league season and have positioned themselves as favourites to defend their championship title, whereas Urawa find themselves in a disappointing 7th place in the J-League and now stand before their last chance at silverware during 2017. Even former midfielder, Takafumi Hori, who took the reign as new head coach in July, admits that he had not expected his team to make it this far in competition, although the hard work has secured a thoroughly deserved place in tonight’s final. With only a single away win during the entire competition, the visitors will have to rely on their perfect home-record and simply try not to fall too far behind ahead of next week’s return leg. The Japanese will have to be sure not to make any mistakes and it will be crucial for playmaker Yōsuke Kashiwagi to be precise whenever an opportunity to supply Shinzo Koroki and Rafael Silva presents itself. But should they fail to contain former FC Porto and Nice midfielder Carlos Eduardo, the Brazilian will almost certainly be the weight that tips the scale Al Hilal’s way. They may have beaten some very good sides along the way but nothing compares to Al Hilal, who have lost but a single match during 2017(away to ES Tunis in the Arab Club Championship) and will be confident and patient when trying to grind their way to their first ACL-title since the 1999/2000-season, while redeeming themselves for the 2014 final defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers. The Saudi side’s head coach, Ramón Díaz, says he will rely on the extensive experience of his squad and thinks it will come down to discipline and focus. Urawa skipper, Yuki Abe scored one of the goals when the Reds secured continental glory a decade ago and is one of only two players left from that squad (the other being Tadaaki Hirakawa), he says that although Al Hilal have matched his side’s unbeaten record of 2007, the objective is to get a goal and a draw back to the fortress that is Saitama Stadium.
Being Swedish, I’m not completely unfamiliar with the concept of two legged-finals, as this was once the practice of our domestic cup, and indeed at one point in time even the way we would end our league season, but I do prefer events like this to be played in a single evening and in a neutral setting. However, I understand the reasons behind this system given the geographical circumstances and will be especially interested in how it affects the amount of time spent feeling each other out and settling into the match.