SAITAMA – Late goals from Hiroki Fujiharu and Brazilian striker Patric sent defending champions Gamba Osaka into the J. League Championship final with a 3-1 extra-time win away to first-stage winners Urawa Reds in the playoff semifinal on Saturday.
Former Japan international Yasuyuki Konno fired Gamba in front early in the second half before substitute Zlatan Ljubijankic headed Reds level with 18 minutes of a pulsating encounter remaining in regulation.
But Fujiharu struck on his 27th birthday with two minutes left in the second extra period and Patric killed the game off with Gamba’s third to set up a meeting in the two-leg final against Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“We were all running out of energy but we all fought our way through,” said Fujiharu. “We were determined to win and I’m filled with joy.
“Yone (Koki Yonekura) gave me a good ball (for the goal) and I had one thing in my mind and that was to shoot and it turned out nicely. We were behind on points during the season but this is a one-off game and we were up for it.”
Hiroshima, champion in 2012 and 2013, advanced directly to the final by virtue of finishing with the most points over the season.
Gamba, who won a domestic treble last season and reached the playoff this year after finishing in third place behind Hiroshima and Reds in the overall standings, host the first leg of the final on Wednesday before it moves to Edion Stadium in Hiroshima on Dec. 5.
Reds had the first chance of a lively opening at a sun-drenched Saitama Stadium, with captain Yuki Abe heading just wide after 14 minutes.
Gamba striker Takashi Usami gave Reds ‘keeper Shusaku Nishikawa his first test with a low shot soon afterward and Hiroyuki Abe shaved the outside of Nishikawa’s right-hand post in the 18th minute after being teed up by Patric.
Nishikawa raced off his line to thwart Yasuhito Endo shortly before the break, but Gamba broke the deadlock in the 47th minute.
Kotaro Omori got in front of Ryota Moriwaki to win the ball on the left flank and picked out Konno, who took one touch before driving the ball into the right-hand corner.
Urawa nearly equalized straight after the restart but Masaaki Higashiguchi pulled out a top-drawer save to beat away a stinging effort from Tsukasa Umesaki and then denied Yuki Abe with another stop in the 67th minute.
Urawa had strong claims for a penalty waved away after Omori clearly fouled Takahiro Sekine but justice was done when the home side leveled.
Moriwaki headed Yosuke Kashiwagi’s corner against the crossbar, but Ljubijankic muscled his way in at the back post to head in the rebound.
Higashiguchi scrambled to keep out a Kashiwagi effort with three minutes left as Urawa pushed for a winner and then produced more heroics with the last play of regulation, pushing a close-range header at the far post from Yuki Muto onto the crossbar.
“The difference was paper thin but those (saves) make the difference in soccer. I had confidence even if the game was heading to penalties,” said Higashiguchi.
Urawa dominated extra time but Gamba took the lead in the 118th minute, with Fujiharu volleying home Yonekura’s cross before Patric sealed victory when he beat the offside trap and steered in a through ball from Yasuhito Endo.
“Either team could have won the game, it’s always close when we play here at Urawa and it’s a credit to us to come away with a win,” said Endo.
“We finished the season third and we had nothing to lose. We’ll be up against Hiroshima as challengers again.”
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