As Urawa Red Diamonds and Al Hilal took to the pitch at Saitama Stadium the home side had won all their home games and the visitors were undefeated throughout the entire tournament so one very impressive run had to come to an end in the very last match of the 2017 AFC Champions League. With the first leg ending in a 1-1 draw the home side didn’t even need a win, but merely a goalless draw, to be crowned champions. But, with neither side in the habit of not scoring, that felt highly unlikely beforehand.
Urawa showed the confidence they have in front of their fantastic home fans and, instead of falling back and looking for opportunities on the break, started out by pressing high and looking for a goal to get in front. Yosuke Kashiwagi was in fine form and the hosts might well have scored an early goal, just as they did in Riyadh, but the finishing came up short. Kazuki Nagasawa had the best chance but his shot in the 8th minute went straight into Abdullah Al-Mayoof’s hands. As if that wasn’t enough, the travelling fans also a couple of nervous minutes as tournament top scorer Omar Khribin stayed down after a challenge in the 13th minute. Al Hilal tried to keep possession, and did see most of the ball, but failed to put it to any use and were quickly frustrated by Urawa’s intensity and saw themselves repeatedly penalised for unnecessary fouls in midfield. It took the visitors 25 minutes to create something as Salem Al-Dawsari found some space just outside the box but fired just over the target. The same man had the next one in a similar position after 41 minutes, this time seeing his shot deflected out for a corner, and Nicolás Milesi put the ball wide of the post after a nice build up only a minute later, but in between that, the Reds had been far more threatening. At the half time whistle, the Japanese side were still ahead on away goals.
The Reds took heed to A Hilals end to the first half but were not discouraged. Instead they moved positions forward and started out in similar fashion to their opening 15 minutes: early recoveries and quick finishing. But, pretty soon the heavy weight of possession, along with a home more and more inclined to defending their slender advantage, allowed Al Hilal to start piling on pressure and the match’s centre of gravity seemed to move ever closer to the Urawa goal. But with Omar Khribin leaving the pitch due to injury just over the 1 hour mark and Carlos Eduardo still out from the injury he picked up in the first leg, the end product just wasn’t there. With just over a quarter of an hour left to play, Kashiwagi was awarded a free-kick just outside the opposition’s penalty and delivered a great cross that ended up forcing Al-Mayoof to make a double save from what was the best chance of the night by far. Then, with 12 minutes left to play, Al-Dawsari picked up his second yellow of the night after putting his stubs into Wataru Endo’s ankle and, with the visitors down to ten men, Urawa seemed to have the match, and continental title all wrapped up. When Rafael Silva broke loose and hammered the ball home via the crossbar so hard you thought it would break with only 2 minutes of regular time left, the mountain to climb grew even higher for Al Hilal. The goal was only academical in the end as Urawa secured their second ACL title but it meant their perfect record at home was intact and that Al Hilal finally suffered defeat in this year’s campaign.
It’s an amazing performance to defeat what is generally considered Asia’s top-side and even more impressive to do so to become continental champions. The Urawa Red Diamonds were hardly expected by anyone to make it very far in the tournament but the support they have at home really carried them all the way. They may be the most inconsistent side to win a title like this, with 8 wins(only 1 away from home), 2 draws and 4 defeats its not what one would expect from a side that goes all the way. No matter what, hat’s off to the champions and they have nothing to apologize for.
It’s hard not to feel for Al Hilal though, to go through all but the most crucial match of the tournament undefeated and lose a final in which they should have been 2 or 3 goals up, rather than level, after the first leg. It’s hard to see any team in Asia who could have coped with losing the quality of Carlos Eduardo as well as Omar Khribin and then being reduced to 10 men in the middle of their push for the goal to turn it all around. They will surely feel they deserved to bring home the trophy this year and prove once and for all they are the best outfit east of Europe.