Urawa Reds hung on grimly for a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their AFC Champions League final against Iran’s Sepahan on Wednesday evening in Esfahan.
Robson Ponte scored a speculative screamer on the stroke of halftime to put the visitors ahead in a first half they fairly dominated, but Sepahan came roaring back after the break as the Reds defense disintegrated after Mahmoud Karimi equalized from close range at the beginning of the second period.
The Iranians fully deserved a victory after a Jekyll and Hyde performance from Urawa and the Saitama giants were lucky to come out with a valuable away goal and draw.
Thanking their lucky stars, they’ll now fancy their chances in the return leg on Nov. 14 at Saitama Stadium.
Urawa’s epic semifinal penalty shootout win over Seongnam Illhwa came at a cost, with captain Nobuhisa Yamada out of both legs of the final after tearing a calf muscle in the game and aggravating it in the J. League against Nagoya Grampus Eight, while Japan international Marcus Tulio Tanaka missed out Wednesday after picking up a thigh strain against Seongnam. The central defender is still doubtful for the return leg at Saitama Stadium.
Reports coming from the Reds training camp in Dubai suggested Keita Suzuki was also doubtful, but the midfielder started alongside Makoto Hasebe and Ponte in the center of the park, with Yuki Abe deputizing for Yamada on the right and Tadaaki Hirakawa, scorer of the winning spot-kick against Seongnam, on the left.
The three-man backline was Keisuke Tsuboi, Satoshi Horinouchi and Brazilian Nene, with the Zorro-masked Washington and Yuichiro Nagai starting up front.
Sepahan started brightly at the Foolad Shahr Stadium, nestled in the foothills of the Zagros mountains in Esfahan, although the Iranians were unable to forge any clear-cut chances.
The Reds weathered the early storm on what appeared to be a choppy pitch and quickly wrestled control of the game. Nagai really should have opened the scoring on the 20-minute mark, when Hirakawa whipped in a superb cross from the left, but the forward mistimed his leap and could only shoulder the ball harmlessly past the post.
Nagai almost redeemed himself five minutes later when he cut inside from the left and, with defenders backing off, decided to let go with a fizzing shot that flew across the face of the goal and cannoned off the upright.
Reds sensed a goal and, despite a momentary scare when the ball ping-ponged around their area, poured forward again and again in the hope of an opening. But for all the clever build up on the edge of the area, when the goal came it came from distance. Hasebe clipped the ball inside to Ponte and the Brazilian stepped forward and thrashed in a shot from 25 meters that fairly flew past Abbas Mohammadi.
Replays suggested the ‘keeper went down in installments and should shoulder the blame, but you take what you get and a goal on the cusp of halftime was just reward for the visitors now clearly on the ascendancy.
But from the sublime emerged the ridiculous: The second half began in unmitigated disaster for the Reds when with less than a minute on the clock Sepahan pulled level. Abdul Wahab Abu Al Hail fired in a low ball that bounced into the path of Ebrahim Lovinian whose shot came back off the post into the path of the lurking Karimi who stabbed the ball home.
Suddenly the Reds defense looked utterly shambolic. Sepahan steamed forward and but for the heroics of Ryota Tsuzuki it could quickly have been 2-1, the ‘keeper saving brilliantly from Moharram Navidkia.
Karimi then went close again when he escaped the attentions of a now hapless Nene, only to lift his lob over the onrushing Tsuzuki and past the goal. The Reds defenders had a death-wish quality about them and coach Holger Osieck looked furious on the touchline.
Sepahan did Urawa a favor when it substituted Karimi. With that move, the Iranians lost a little of their pizzazz. A little later, Osieck tried to inject a little bit more urgency with the introduction of pocket-rocket striker Tatsuya Tanaka for Nagai. It was of to no avail and Reds could have lost another goal when substitute Hossein Kazemi clipped a shot just past the post.
Whatever the outcome of the second leg, Sepahan has already qualified for the Club World Cup playoff against New Zealand side Waitakere United, due to a FIFA rule forbidding two Japanese teams taking part in the competition. Victory in the ACL final would of course put them in the competition proper, with the Reds taking their place in the CWC playoff if, as is likely, they win the J. League. The Reds stand seven points clear at the top of the league with four games left. They play Kawasaki Frontale on Sunday at Todoroki Stadium before hosting Sepahan the following Wednesday.
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