SAITAMA — Ryota Tsuzuki saved a penalty and Tadaaki Hirakawa slotted home the winning spot-kick as Urawa Reds advanced to the AFC Champions League final with a 5-3 shootout victory over Seongnam Ilhwa on Wednesday.

News photoUrawa’s Brazilian striker Washington (left) fires a shot in the first half against Seongnam Ilhwa
of South Korea in the second leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals at Saitama Stadium 2002
on Wednesday night.

With the second leg of the semifinal finishing 2-2 after extra time, Tsuzuki proved the hero by saving Choi Sung Kuk’s penalty. Robson Ponte, Washington, Yuki Abe and Yuichiro Nagai all converted to put the hopes of Urawa on the shoulders of Hirakawa.

He didn’t disappoint.

There were plenty of twists and turns to the plot on the most dramatic of nights at Saitama Stadium. With the first leg finishing 2-2, Urawa had the advantage of two away goals and Washington’s strike on 21 minutes provided further comfort.

The Reds looked in control but a second-half capitulation saw Choi and Kim Dong Hun turn the tie on its head with two sucker-punch strikes before Makoto Hasebe dragged Urawa back from the brink on 73 minutes and forced the game into extra time.

Both sides were running on vapors in the extra period, Washington going closest with a diving header off a Ponte cross, but there was an air of inevitability about a penalty shootout.

The Reds now stand just 180 minutes away from continental cup glory. They will face Iran’s Sepahan, who played later Wednesday, in the two-legged final on Nov. 7 and 14.

Perhaps Holger Osieck and the Reds will now dare to dream of an unprecedented treble, if not quadruple. The J. League is theirs to lose, being six points ahead with five games left, defense of the Emperor’s Cup awaits, and before that an inaugural Club World Cup appearance if the ACL is won.

If anyone deserves this success it is the Urawa fans. The 51,651 crowd generated a crackling atmosphere to rival those famous European nights at Anfield and the like.

The decibel levels were ramped up a notch further when Urawa went ahead. An eye-watering conk on the nose against JEF United Chiba last weekend meant Washington was wearing a Batman-style mask but the Brazilian showed he had retained his nose for goal with a devastating strike.

Washington received a looping cross-field ball from compatriot Ponte, his effortless control of the ball diddling Jang Hack Yong and allowing the striker to thrash an angled drive past ‘keeper Kim Yong Dae.

The 32-year-old Washington had shown as early as the first minute that he had the bit between his teeth, with a trademark shot on the turn that brought a save from Kim.

It set the tone for what was, apart from the odd heart-fluttering moment, a first half dominated by the Reds. The effervescent Tatsuya Tanaka, Robin to Washington’s Caped Crusader, was annoying the bejesus out of the Seongnam backline with his running.

Meanwhile, Keita Suzuki was ruling the roost in midfield. Suzuki led the Saitama snatch squad whenever an opponent had the ball.

There was to be no sitting back in the second half for Urawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka flashed a 25-meter drive just wide as the Reds tasted blood.

But this hell-for-leather approach had its risks, and they were painfully apparent on 56 minutes when Seongnam pulled level, Brazilian Itamar breaking down the left, beating Keisuke Tsuboi and crossing for Choi to side foot home.

It was the first time in the match Seongnam had bared its teeth on the counter attack and now the Reds looked brutally exposed when caught on the break.

But still they steamed forward, sensing another goal would crush the Korean resistance.

It wasn’t to be, and Seongnam punished the Reds for their lack of conviction in the Korean area by going up the other end and scoring a second on 69 minutes. Itamar found enough space to crack a long-range shot that Tsuzuki parried into the air and Kim headed in.

The game progressed in pell-mell fashion and Urawa’s response was quick and clinical. Ponte lofted in a free-kick, Tulio rose high to head the ball across goal and Hasebe was there to lash the ball home.

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