SAITAMA – Urawa Reds defender Tomoaki Makino hailed his team’s composure and resilience after holding off star-studded Shanghai SIPG to book its place in the Asian Champions League final on Wednesday night.
Rafael Silva scored in the 12th minute to give Urawa a 1-0 win over Shanghai in the semifinal second leg at Saitama Stadium, sending the club through to its first ACL final since 2007 with a 2-1 aggregate win.
Wealthy Shanghai began the game with Brazil internationals Hulk and Oscar in its expensively assembled lineup, but Makino and his Urawa teammates kept them on a tight leash to set up a final showdown with Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal.
“Even the players didn’t imagine this kind of result,” said Makino. “The scariest part was when the game began and we tried not to drop back or play defensive football. That’s what we had been talking about all along. We had a good start, scored and then played our football.
“I didn’t want to let Hulk play with freedom. I got booked in the first half, but that was a good chance for me. Everyone was telling me to be careful not to give away fouls, but if I took a step back he was just too dangerous. So thanks to the booking, I was defending from the front foot and going looking for the ball. It was a fun 90 minutes.”
Urawa will face Al Hilal in the two-legged final on Nov. 18 and 25 — with the second leg at home — in a bid to lift the trophy for the first time since beating Iran’s Sepahan for the crown a decade ago.
The Saitama side has gained an unwanted reputation for choking in big games since then, and Makino is determined to set the record straight.
“The fact that we could beat a great team like this on the big stage is proof that we’ve grown,” said the Japan international, who was part of the Urawa side that lost last year’s J. League championship decider to Kashima Antlers despite taking a two-goal lead.
“But we’ve only reached the final — we haven’t achieved anything yet. If we let ourselves be satisfied with this, it’ll be the same old Urawa. We don’t need the runner-up prize. We have to take the trophy.”
Shanghai was the favorite going into the semifinal but allowed Urawa to score a crucial away goal in a 1-1 draw in the Sept. 27 first leg.
Shanghai manager Andre Villas-Boas, who the Chinese side recruited at great expense to help it win the continental title, admitted that Urawa’s game plan had worked to perfection and wished his opponent all the best in the final.
“I think Urawa are a very good team,” said the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager. “They play wonderful football, and now, if it’s not us, I will support them for the football they play. Because it’s beautiful, it’s attacking and technical and I like it. Today it wasn’t so attacking but that was the problem that we faced.
“We couldn’t create the chances in the end. I’m not surprised because they have international players and they have quality. They created a lot of chances. It was a problem for us. As time went on in the second half, we started playing more long balls.”
Urawa has endured a disappointing season in the J. League and currently sits seventh in the table — 19 points behind leader Kashima — with five games remaining.
The club replaced manager Mihailo Petrovic with Takafumi Hori in late July following a poor run of results, and Hori now stands two games away from glory, just months into the job.
“It was a difficult game but the players fought and ran and I appreciate their efforts,” said Hori. “The first thing was to defend as a team. Our opponents had some really strong players in attack so we had to be compact and work together to get the ball off them.
“I would have liked us to win the ball earlier, and I would also have liked to have spent less time defending. That’s something that we need to be careful about in the next game.”
Urawa captain Yuki Abe is one of the few remaining Urawa players who played in the 2007 ACL-winning campaign, but the 36-year-old admits he knows little about this year’s final opponent.
“I’m happy that we’re back in the final after 10 years but we haven’t achieved anything yet,” said Abe, who was named man of the match. “We’re playing against a Saudi team but we don’t know much about them. All we know about them is that they won the first leg of their semifinal 4-0 and drew the second leg. We’ve been too busy concentrating on this game to think about them. We’ll start looking at them now.”