URAWA RED DIAMONDS: 2017 ACL CHAMPIONS!

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.

Advantage Urawa Reds midway through the ACL final

Due to some technical issues I missed the opening ten minutes of the ACL Final first leg and when I finally had the match playing Urawa had already found a surprising breakthrough and a crucial goal through Rafael Silva tucking a rebound away to put their hosts in an awkward and stressful position after a mere eight minutes. Luckily, for Al Hilal and the neutral spectator alike, the Reds are a side ill equipped to park the bus and all signs still pointed to an entertaining evening of football. The home side had not problem finding space in dangerous positions but with star term player Carlos Eduardo forced off due to injury after only 18 minutes and Shusaku Nishikawa at the top of his game between the Urawa posts, it still took half an hour for Al Hilal to find an equaliser after Syrian international Omar Khribin pounced on a loose ball inside the box. A dominant home side then came close to completing the turnaround but despite some high quality opportunities it was still 1-1 at break.

The Saudis picked up right where they left off pushed the Reds deep into their already defensive positions. The visitors were happy and, quite frankly lucky, to keep the scores level during the opening 15 minutes of the second half with more than one sequence that should have resulted in Al Hilal breaking the deadlock. All that stood between them and a comfortable lead was Nishikawa and the absence of Carlos Eduardo. It was a race against the clock for Al Hilal to get the crucial lead and Urawa to secure the upper hand halfway through the final round. In the end, the Japanese got exactly what captain Yuki Abe said they came for ahead of the match, and will bring a great 1-1 draw back home, where Al Hilal are set to face a completely different opponent than they did Saturday evening.

FIRST FINAL DAY IN THE AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

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.

Urawa Reds cruise through to the ACL-final

This year’s East Asian Champion was to be crowned and Al Hilal’s opponent in the continental final to be chosen when Shanghai SIPG visited Urawa Red Diamonds early on Wednesday evening. It was more or less a make or break situation for both participants as Urawa are stuck in the middle of nowhere in the J-League and SIPG drawing against bottom side Liaoning Kaixin during the weekend to fall 6 points shy of the top spot of the CSL with only 3 rounds left to be played. Albeit, SIPG are still in the running for the CFA Cup as a last resort to fulfill André Villas-Boas’ promise to bring home some silverware during his first season in charge.
Following the 1-1 draw in the first leg of this semi-final, the Japanese hosts would have been very confident to rely on their solid record in front of their infamous “Red wall” to carry them through to the final, while SIPG have been struggling far more away from home than at the Shanghai Stadium. Add to that the Reds 1-0 win in the group phase home game against tonight’s opponents and they had to be considered favorites coming in.

It only took just over 10 minutes for the home-side to break the deadlock when Yosuke Kashiwagi swung in a perfect corner to find Rafael Silva who put near Oliver Bierhoff-like power behind the header and rendered Yan Junling’s two handed attempt to steer the ball clear of his goal futile. Bringing the Brazilian’s ACL record to an impressive 7 goals in 10 matches. Urawa had already looked the better side and the goal threw them into next gear and a furious chase to quickly get another one. A few lost balls going forward, followed by dangerous breaks from SIPG’s impressive offensive arsenal, took some of the edge off the host’s enthusiasm and the match grew more balanced in play after roughly twenty minutes. The sides re-grouped and the breathtaking pace was replaced by a bit more sideways passes for the second part of the first half and into the break. Largely because Urawa fell back and SIPG had trouble finding a way through the lower defensive line.

Coming back for the second half, the visitors had adapted to the host’s more defensive style and raised the tempo of their passing. Making themselves more of a threat but also more vulnerable to counter attacks. The match opened up once more. Tomoaki Makino came close to doubling the lead ten minutes after the break but his header, from yet another well-taken Kashiwagi-corner went over off the crossbar. After 70 minutes played, top-scorer Shinzo Koroki forced Yan to a top quality save to keep the visitors in the running. Despite all their individual talent, SIPG looked less threatening as time went by and the Reds grew more comfortable in their lead as a result. The visitors didn’t even manage any real final push for an equalizer towards the end and Urawa secured a thoroughly, and quite comfortably, deserved ticket to the 2017 AFC Champions League-final and a chance to repeat their 2007-success of becoming Asian champions.