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.

Semi final-time in the ACL

It’s drawing ever nearer to the AFC Champions League final as the East Asian section semi-final between Shanghai SIPG and Urawa Red Diamonds kick-off tonight in the major Chinese port city. The home-side are still in the CFA Cup and were surprisingly invited back into the race for the domestic league title by Guangzhou Evergrande, who dropped 2 points during the weekend to let SIPG within 4 points at the top of the table. Great for the excitement during the last 4 rounds of the CSL but, perhaps, a distraction in tonight’s match as SIPG would surely prefer breaking Evergrandes massive dominance at home to becoming continental champions this year.
For the visitors, the situation is more straightforward. Eliminated from both domestic cups and on a insipid 7th place in the J-League, this is the Reds last chance for glory in 2017.
The way each club qualified for the semis were essentially different as well, SIPG seemed to have their quarter-final nicely wrapped up after a solid 4-0-win in the first leg at home to Evergrande. The Guangzhou-side, however, fought back hard and won by the same result in the reverse fixture, leaving SIPG to crawl through on penalties. For Urawa, it took an impressive turnaround, coming from 3-1 down to win the home-leg 4-1 against Kawaski Frontale. I still hold the home-side as favourites tonight since the Red Diamonds are a very different team away from their Red Wall back home in Urawa, but neither side puts defending first and I also expect it to be an entertaining and high scoring affair. 4-2 rather than 2-0 so to speak. Hulk and Shinzo Koroki getting at least one for their respective side would feel like a pretty safe bet.

Evenly matched only on the scoreboard

Not much at stake, neither for Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng nor visiting Henan Jianye, with both being more or less stuck in no-man’s land with the season starting to near its end. Such affairs often brings open play and positive attitudes and so this this one. Each side saw a different kind of run come to an end in the previous round, with Guizhou having their five match winning-streak ended away to Tianjin Quanjian and Henan finally getting a win, after seven straight failed attempts, when they visited Shanghai Shenhua.

A nicely taken freekick from midfield reached Henan forward Ricardo Vaz Tê who headed the ball well beyond the Su Boyang’s reach but the keeper was saved by the crossbar and in the both of the following two attacks Nikica Jelavić came near to breaking the deadlock for Guizhou.

In-form Guizhou dominated possession and Jelavic, in particular, looked threatening with good movement whenever the ball reached the Henan box. After 20 minutes the feeling was not if, but when, the home-side would go in front. Iminjan Ilhanjan, who put on an impressive display tonight, came close after half an hour but his effort was thwarted by a wonderful stop from Wu Yan. The Henan goalkeeper then secured his title as half man of the 1st half with an even more acrobatic save from a wonderful Ilhanjan-volley in the 43rd minute to keep the game goalless at halftime.

The tempo was lower from the start of the second half. Guizhou still maintained most possession but with Christian Bassogog and Vaz Tê up front, Henan was always going to be dangerous on the counter attack. The slower build up finally led up to a Wang Fan-cross finding Liang Xueming who headed the ball via Henan-captain Gu Cao to open the scoring after an hour of football. Seven minutes later, Rubén Castro opened up a bit of space for himself and nearly put the match beyond any doubt but yet another fine save from Wu kept the visitors in it. It was only for five minutes more however, because then Castro found the space for another shot and this time, not even Wu could reach the ball as the Spaniard tucked it away perfectly in the bottom corner.
Guizhou had been superior all night and seemed to have the 3 points all wrapped up but out of the blue, the ball fell for Vaz Tê and the Portuguese striker made no mistake, breathing life back into the match with just over 10 minutes left of regular time. Nervousness spread within the home-side and Bassogog’s pace caused some confusion at the back but the threat never felt serious and Guizhou held on to get back to their winning ways pretty comfortably.

Last chance in Guangzhou

Two teams making a last go at holding on to distant ACL-dreams for next season faced off in Guangzhou. It was high intensity from the start with visiting Beijing Guoan getting the clear chances, the visitors had an early goal disallowed when Song Boxuan was played through, and may well have been onside, in the fifth minute and after 25 minutes Zhang Xizhe forced Cheng Yuelei to stretch his body to full length to reach the ball with his fingertips. Guangzhou R&F had all kinds of trouble dealing with Guoan’s high pressure but, in the 29th minute, Guoan lost the ball going forward and the home side broke quickly through Chen Zhizhao who handed the ball off to Eran Zahavi, continued straight ahead and was played clean through by the Israeli to make no mistake and place the ball calmly between the legs of Yang Zhi to put his side in front.
R&F were encouraged by taking the lead and nearly doubled it in the 31st minute, but Zahavi failed to get a proper connection with the header and the ball went wide off his shoulder instead. 2 minutes on Guoan took back the initiative and Cheng was once again forced to show his worth for the home side to keep Jonathan Soriano’s nicely curled freekick out. Short thereafter, a free-kick routine set up Zhang Gong but the powerful shot ended up wide in yet another almost-moment for Guoan, who created a few more, less qualitative opportunities, before going into the break still trailing.

R&F came out and, instead of falling back and defending the slender lead, moved positions forward to try and even out the odds which nearly resulted in 2-0 within the first minute of the second half. Guoan were hardly deterred and nearly equalised from a header before the clock had reached 48 minutes. The game was anything but organised and it was wide open at both ends. R&F created as much in 7 minutes as they did in the first 45 and Guoan still looked dangerous as well. Zahavi came close to adding to the tally again but was denied by a fine save by Yang in the 58th minute.
Despite R&F’s massive improvement in the second half, the equaliser was thoroughly deserved when it finally came as Soriano was set up by Yu Dabao and slotted home after an hour of football. The capitals happiness was, however, ephemeral and lasted only eight minutes before CSL top-scorer Eran Zahavi was played through by Jiang Zhipeng and put the ball past Yang for his 25th goal of the season.

Back in front, R&F fell back and the match looked more like it did in the first half. However, Guoan had more trouble turning possession into chances. It was simply too crowded in the R&F box to find any openings and the home side held on to get three very important points in their already very successful season. For Guoan it was another example of the theme of their 2017, attractive offensive play but ineffectiveness resulting in less than what they may have deserved.