SAITAMA — Urawa Reds spoiled Manchester United’s party by claiming a battling 2-2 draw at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Tuesday night.
United, featuring a full compliment of stars, was looking to get its Asian tour off to a winning start in front of 58,716 fans hoping for a glimpse of the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But Urawa refused to play the stooge in the great United traveling roadshow, taking the lead against the run of play through Hideki Uchidate.
United upped the tempo as the second half began, with Darren Fletcher and Ronaldo notching two quick-fire goals to give the English Premier League champions a 2-1 advantage.
But Reds fought on and got their reward 13 minutes from time when Shinji Ono found a way through the United defense to rifle in an equalizing goal and share the spoils in the Saitama City Cup.
Despite the late goal, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was happy with what he saw.
“It was an entertaining match,” he said.
“We tired in the second half a little, which is understandable, and Urawa Reds played better in the second half.
“Outside of the top 10 teams in the Premier League they are as healthy as any team in England.
“We are satisfied at the workout we have had, and we were able to play quite a few players, so we are happy.”
The match kicked off with the normally boisterous Reds fans unusually subdued, the crowd reserving its applause for the inevitable Ronaldo stepovers once the action got under way.
United began to carve its mesmerizing passing patterns around the pitch with little in the way of opposition as Urawa struggled to match the tempo of the English side.
Patrice Evra and Darren Fletcher were causing Reds problems down the flanks, but the home team’s defense held its nerve to keep United’s attacking spearhead Rooney under wraps.
Urawa gradually began to enjoy some possession of its own, and Robson Ponte flashed a drive over the bar midway through the first half.
Michael Carrick and Ronaldo both fired off long-range shots as United pressed forward, but it was Reds who took an unexpected lead on 25 minutes.
Uchidate carried the ball deep into United territory, and with no one closing him down, the 33-year-old unleashed a spectacular shot from outside the box past the helpless Edwin Van der Sar.
Ponte began to exert more influence on the game, and after Tatsuya Tanaka had come close on two occasions, the Premier League champions were looking rattled.
Rooney replied first by delivering a perfect cross for Paul Scholes, only for the midfielder to see his header saved.
Rooney then robbed the ball from Uchidate on the halfway line and set off on a slaloming run through the heart of the Reds defense before firing his shot just wide.
Urawa’s fans found their voice at the start of the second half, but United had also found its cutting edge.
Carrick picked up the ball from Ryan Giggs, and with a dip of the shoulder he had created himself an opening on goal.
Substitute goalkeeper Norihiro Yamagishi managed to parry Carrick’s shot, but the England midfielder had the presence of mind to lay off the rebound for the waiting Fletcher to crack in the equalizer.
Minutes later, United had the lead.
Giggs’ raking ball found Ronaldo on the left, and the English player of the year cut inside his man to fire in a low drive from just outside the box.
Reds refused to lie down, however, and with Ponte pulling the strings, captain Nobuhisa Yamada came close after a good attacking move down the right.
What had threatened to turn into a cakewalk for United had developed into an open match, as Takahito Soma blazed a shot over the bar for Reds and Rooney attempted an audacious lob from inside his own half for the visitors.
Urawa’s persistence paid off when Ono leveled the score on 77 minutes.
Sharp attacking play from Makoto Hasebe released the midfielder into the box, and the 27-year-old skipped past his marker to fire a shot into the corner.
Ferguson had said before the match that he would only consider signing Asian players who had proved themselves at a middle-ranking European club, citing United’s ex-PSV Eindhoven player Park Ji Sung as a successful example.
To Ono, this must have been painful to hear.
The midfielder won the UEFA Cup in his first season with Dutch club Feyenoord in 2002, but a series of injuries forced him to return to the J. League last year with his European ambitions unfulfilled.
He may yet return for another attempt, but for now at least, Ono and Urawa Reds have proved they can live with the big boys.