RIYADH – The J. League’s Urawa Reds took a step toward their second Asian championship and their first in 10 years with a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Asian Champions League final on the road against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal on Saturday.
Reds’ Rafael Silva opened the scoring in the seventh minute, when he found space after a defender fell and dashed around the defense. After his cross was blocked in front of the goal and rolled uncontrolled into the penalty area, Silva poked it home past several defenders. It was his eighth goal of this year’s competition.
From the start, Reds seemed content to play the game in their half, rarely maintaining possession and conceding numerous scoring opportunities to the Saudis, who equalized through star forward Omar Khribin in the 38th minute.
Although Urawa’s Tomoaki Makino and captain Yuki Abe took turns defending the tall striker, the frequency and intensity of Al-Hilal’s attacks made shutting him down impossible.
A cross from Mohammed Al-Burayk went to Salem Al-Dawsari in the center of the penalty area, and with several defenders attending to him, Abe was left alone on Khribin. Al Dawsari tapped the ball to his teammate and Khribin, starting with his back to the goal, rounded Abe and fired home.
The strike was his 10th goal of the tournament, the most in this year’s competition. He came close to adding to his tally, and Urawa needed all its energy and luck to escape with a draw in a match in which it took no corners but conceded eight and was outshot 20-6.
The second leg is next Saturday at Saitama Stadium.
“Now it’s all down to the next game, we win that and we’re champions,” Abe said. “We strived today to prevent them from scoring. We have some momentum now. We’ve seen what they’re like and we’ll be prepared for them at Saitama Stadium.”
Al-Hilal looked to employ its physicality at the outset, but picked up five yellow cards in the process — the first thanks to a theatrical flop from Silva. After the first goal, the diving only increased with Reds’ Tomoya Ugajin booked when his foot brushed an opponent who fell writhing on the pitch. Holding and jostling became the norm as the referee appeared momentarily in danger of losing control.
The game appeared to calm down after 30 minutes, but Urawa’s defense-first approach limited it to a few rapid attacks, such as the one that produced Silva’s goal, but no substantial pressure. A few minutes into the second half, however, Urawa opened up the attack and the game took on a different complexion.
Reds suffered a blow when Silva, their sole consistent offensive threat, was carted off the pitch just after the hour. But the balanced effort persisted and the Urawa players appeared more motivated by being set loose.
As Reds asserted their will, the hosts resorted to intimidation tactics once more and several ugly incidents ensued with kicks delivered and elbows thrown.
Although Al-Hilal has never won the Asian Champions League, it was a two-time winner of the competition’s predecessor, the Asian Club Championship.