NIIGATA – Brazilian forward Rafael Silva came off the bench to strike a last-gasp winner as 10-man Albirex Niigata edged holders Gamba Osaka 2-1 in the first leg of their Nabisco Cup semifinal on Wednesday night.
Gamba took the lead through Kotaro Omori before Kosuke Yamamoto made it all square with a fine effort nine minutes before halftime at the Big Swan.
Niigata striker Leo Silva was dismissed midway through the second half but his namesake snatched victory in the 90th minute.
Gamba also finished the game with 10 men as Kim Jung-ya picked up a second booking in the fourth minute of injury time.
“I thought it was a scene that would decide the game and I just wanted to put the ball away. I am happy that I could contribute to the team’s win,” said Rafael Silva.
“We wanted to go into Sunday’s second leg with a good result from tonight and I am glad we were able to do that. It was tough being a man down against a team like Gamba, but everyone stuck to their jobs, both in attack and defense and that led to our goal on the counterattack.”
In the other semifinal, goals from Kazuya Yamamura and Shuhei Akasaki put five-time champions Kashima Antlers in control ahead of Sunday’s second leg with a 2-1 win at Vissel Kobe.
Making its first appearance in the semifinals, Niigata should have taken the lead in the 27th minute, but Ryohei Yamazaki squandered the best chance of the first half after doing all the hard work.
Yamazaki picked the ball up just inside the Gamba half and held off four defenders, but with only the Gamba goalkeeper to beat, shot straight at Yosuke Fujigaya.
Takahiro Futagawa nearly punished Yamazaki for that miss two minutes later, his free kick bringing a fine save out of Tatsuya Morita.
Gamba, coming off back-to-back defeats in the Asian Champions League and J. League, drew first blood in the 33rd minute.
Omori, one of only two Gamba players in the team who started in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Kawasaki Frontale, got his head on the end of Hiroki Fujiharu’s pinpoint cross from the left to tuck the ball away, but Niigata hit back moments later as Yamamoto took a pass from Michael Fitzgerald and turned Futagawa inside out before firing past Fujigaya.
Niigata started the second half with renewed purpose. Kazunari Ono went close before Leo Silva’s free kick bounced off teammate Yamamoto in the Gamba wall and came crashing back off the cross bar in the 53rd minute.
Leo Silva needlessly got himself sent off in the 66th minute after tangling with a Gamba player and as a result will miss the second leg.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Niigata won it as Rafael Silva took a pass from Takanori Maeno and beat Keisuke Iwashita before drilling into the right corner of the net.
The final will be held at Saitama Stadium 2002 on Oct. 31.
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