Urawa looking to end Japanese ACL drought

AFP-JIJI, AP

Urawa Reds will be favorites to exorcise Japan’s Asian Champions League demons when they host Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal in the second leg of the final on Saturday.

With Urawa hoping to end a decade of hurt in Asia’s premier club competition, Brazilian forward Rafael Silva became embroiled in a race row following last weekend’s 1-1 draw in Riyadh, adding to the tension.

Urawa officials filed a formal protest to the Asian Football Confederation after racist comments were posted on the player’s Instagram account.

“From my heart I would like to say it doesn’t bother me at all,” Silva told local media, looking to defuse the controversy.

“My focus is elsewhere. All my energy is focused on the second leg,” added the Brazilian, who gave Urawa an early lead last week before Syrian sharpshooter Omar Kharbin equalized for Al-Hilal.

Japanese clubs have struggled in the Asian Champions League since Urawa’s victory in 2007 and Gamba Osaka’s triumph a year later.

But Urawa now has a superb opportunity to restore a measure of national pride after years of Chinese and Korean dominance.

Silva played a key role as Urawa shocked star-studded Shanghai SIPG 2-1 on aggregate in a tempestuous semifinal last month, scoring the winner to eliminate Andre Villas-Boas’ fancied side.

Urawa will be hoping the 25-year-old has fully recovered from a sore ankle sustained in Riyadh last weekend for what is set to be a sell-out crowd in Saitama.

Reds boss Takafumi Hori welcomes back center back Mauricio from suspension as his side looks to extend its unbeaten run at home in the competition’s knockout stage.

“Condition-wise I feel good,” said Mauricio. “Our opponents have a lot of players with high quality so hopefully we can restrict the number of chances they have.”

Al-Hilal, chasing a first continental title since 2000 after finishing runner-up three years ago, will pin its hopes on more magic from Kharbin, the competition’s joint-top scorer with nine goals in 12 games.

After overcoming Iran’s Persepolis 6-2 on aggregate in the last four, Al-Hilal’s long-serving club captain Yasser Al Qahtani promised to complete the job against Urawa.

“This team never gives up and the fact that we are back in the final is proof of that,” he told the AFC’s official website.

“We will do everything we possibly can to break Urawa’s (home) record and make sure we come back from Japan with the trophy.”

With Urawa scoring an away goal in Riyadh, it puts the emphasis back on Al Hilal to score at Saitama Stadium. With Khribin among the most in-form strikers in Asia, midfielder Mohammed Al Shalboub is confident of victory.

“Ever since joining up, he has put in so much effort and will never accept defeat,” Al Shalboub was quoted as saying by the Asian Football Confederation. “He is very important for us. I think he deserves to be AFC Player of the Year.”

Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz has been linked with the national team job in Saudi Arabia after the dismissal of fellow Argentine Edgardo Bauza, but says he is focused only on the Champions League final.

“This is the final and you expect the final to be tough,” Diaz said. “We showed in the first leg that we can make chances and we will be looking to do the same in the second.”

Al Hilal, which won the Asian Club Championship in 1991 and 2000 but has yet to win the Asian Champions League that was established in 2003, will be without star Eduardo. The Brazilian midfielder tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first leg and is likely to be replaced by Saudi international Nawaf Al Abed.

This year’s final is expected to break the record for attendances over the two legs.

After more than 59,000 turned out to watch the first leg, a similar size crowd is expected for the return match this weekend.