SAITAMA — Urawa Reds put its name in the hat for the Asian Champions League quarterfinals after a nervy 0-0 draw with Sydney FC at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Wednesday night.
Needing only a point to qualify, Urawa almost shot itself in the foot by repeatedly giving away possession to a lively Sydney team that needed no encouragement to take the game to its more celebrated J. League opponent.
But after several anxious moments, Reds hung on to finish on top of Group E and join compatriot Kawasaki Frontale as Japan’s first ever qualifiers for the last eight of Asia’s premier club competition.
Sydney coach Branko Culina had said before the game that the need for Urawa to prioritize defense over attack would not suit the Japanese side’s style. Sloppy passes from Washington and Keita Suzuki early on suggested he may have had a point, but it was Reds who carved out the first real chance of the match.
Yuki Abe began a fast break forward, the ball skimming from one Urawa boot to another until Takahito Soma centered a cross to the waiting Shinji Ono.
The ball may have been delivered at an awkward height, but Ono should have done better as his volley careered over the bar from inside the six-yard box.
Sydney, well-organized and nimble on the break, hit back as Mark Milligan and former Sanfrecce Hiroshima player Steve Corica began to direct traffic in an increasingly congested midfield.
Defender Nikolai Topor-Stanley was also doing a good job of shackling the hulking Washington. Although the Brazilian striker gave him the slip in the 31st minute with a cute back-heel to set up another Reds attack.
But Sydney persisted, and David Zdrilic missed a glorious chance when he failed to connect with a header unmarked in the box.
Urawa was looking nervous, but there was also a heart-stopping moment for Sydney goalkeeper Clint Bolton shortly before the interval. A Robson Ponte shot squeezed under his body, only to spin to a halt just short of the line.
Ono flashed a drive past the post as Reds began the second half with more confidence. The ex-Feyenoord man bared his teeth further with a thrusting run through the heart of the Sydney defense.
But Corica was also growing in influence for the Australians. Marko Rudan and Zdrilic both fired over the bar as Sydney continued to press for the win, as David Carney went within a whisker of hitting the target with a looping drive.
The relentless search for a goal was leaving Sydney exposed at the back, and Ponte and Ono were quick to exploit any space that opened up.
With Soma making way for substitute Makoto Hasebe, Abe took over at left back. The Japan international was not only proving effective at nullifying the threat of winger Ruben Zadkovich, he was also giving Reds a new dimension in attack.
The threat of a late Sydney winner had not yet gone, but Reds were moving to the finish in a more controlled manner than that in which they had started the match.
A late Washington shot whistled narrowly past the post, and Urawa had done enough 7/8 just 7/8 to qualify for the knockout round.
Meanwhile, in Nabisco Cup action, holders JEF United crashed out of the competition with a 1-0 loss to Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Shimizu S-Pulse, Kashiwa Reysol and Kashima Antlers all notched 3-0 wins, and there were also victories for FC Tokyo, Gamba Osaka and Jubilo Iwata, for whom Bobby Cullen continued his rich vein of scoring form with another two goals.
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