Soccer

Muto header propels Reds past Evergrande

Kyodo

Urawa Reds took a significant step toward qualifying for the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Chinese defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande on Tuesday night.

Yuki Muto headed home the opener early in the second half in front of a crowd of over 30,000 and that proved to be enough to secure a vital three points and move Reds into second place in Group H.

The result leaves Reds with seven points from four games, with Guangzhou on two and facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge to advance. Sydney FC remained top of the group with nine points thanks to a 1-0 win at home to South Korea’s Pohang Steelers (four).

“I have been in Japan for 10 years and I have seen many games but it is very rare to see such a great performance,” said Urawa manager Mihailo Petrovic. “Today the tempo was very good and the very important thing is that we proved that money cannot buy a win.

“There were certain instances in the game that we could have had a second or third goal and that should be the next thing to work on, to get the extra goal.”

In a niggly first half littered with fouls, Guangzhou were the first to go close to scoring, Huang Bowen’s deflected shot stinging the palms of Reds goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa after four minutes before he glanced a header wide of the post.

Muto’s 20-meter effort at the other end forced a smart save out of Zhang Linpeng on 25 minutes, but Reds got another scare when Ricardo Goulart’s shot took a deflection and fizzed just outside the left-hand post.

Guangzhou midfielder Paulinho hit the post after a clever flick from Goulart at the start of the second half, but Saitama Stadium erupted as Muto broke the deadlock on 52 minutes.

Takahiro Sekine whipped a cross over from the right and Tomoya Ugajin set up Muto to add to the goal he scored in Reds’ 2-2 draw at Guangzhou with a stooping close-range header.

“The manager told us to play as though it was a final today and you can see how into the game we were. I am always ready (for balls like that) and always aiming to score,” Muto said. “A goal is a goal whether you beat five players or score like that.”

Zlatan Ljubijankic was unable to finish off a surging run as Reds threatened to grab a second, which nearly came 10 minutes from time, goalkeeper Zeng Cheng somehow managing to deny Sekine from point-blank range.

Tadanari Lee and substitute Shinzo Koroki should have both put the game away, but Reds still held on for the win.

“It was a tough game and we had some good chances but Urawa played with a lot of courage, even after scoring,” said Guangzhou’s Brazilian World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. “Our players played without fear even in adverse circumstance and I am very satisfied with the way they performed today.”

Scolari was clearly irritated when asked to comment on the difficult situation his team finds itself in.

“We are not God and cannot be expected to win (the ACL) championship every time,” he snapped.

Urawa has not advanced from the group stage since reaching the semifinals in 2008, a year after it became the first Japanese team to win the ACL in its current format.

Reds are unbeaten in all competitions since losing 2-1 at home to Jubilo Iwata in their first home league game of the season on March 6.

In Group F, J. League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima also picked up their second win, Takumi Miyayoshi and Kosei Shibasaki scoring in a 2-0 win away to Thai champions Buriram United.

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