SAITAMA – Urawa Reds claimed the Asian Champions League title for the first time in a decade after Rafael Silva scored in the 88th minute to seal a 2-1 aggregate win over Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal with a 1-0 final second-leg win on Saturday.
A crowd of 57,727 at Saitama Stadium had to endure a nervy 90 minutes following a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Riyadh on Nov. 18, with Saudi champions Al Hilal dominating possession and the second leg poised on a knife-edge.
But Silva clinched the deal when he charged forward on a late attack and blasted the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Almuaiouf, handing Urawa the title for the second time and giving Japan its first Asian champion since Gamba Osaka in 2008.
“I can’t put this feeling into words,” said Silva, who also scored Urawa’s goal in the first leg and notched nine in the competition overall. “I’ve been trying to overcome an injury for the past week and it has been difficult, but we’ve all been in a difficult situation and we’ve come through it.
“The crowd’s support allowed us to play on 100 percent adrenaline, and that made us so much stronger. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to win tonight, so I’m really grateful to them.”
Urawa became the first Japanese team to win the Asian title in its current format when it beat Iran’s Sepahan in 2007, but the Saitama side had to suffer before regaining the title against an Al Hilal side that dominated for long periods of Saturday’s game.
A 78th-minute red card for Al Hilal’s Salem Aldawasari helped turn the tide in Urawa’s favor, and manager Takafumi Hori and his players can now look forward to representing Asia in the Dec. 6-16 Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
“First of all we’ll take a breather, and then we’ll go into the tournament,” said Silva. “It’s a big honor to be able to take part in a great competition like that.”
Al Hilal went into the second leg without influential Brazilian midfielder Carlos Eduardo, who suffered a knee injury in the first leg, but with Syrian striker Omar Kharbin — the competition’s top scorer with 10 goals — in the starting lineup.
Kazuki Nagasawa almost staked Urawa to a dream start when he stole the ball from a Saudi defender and tried his luck with only 25 seconds on the clock, and Shinzo Koroki also had a presentable chance as the home side found early gaps in the Al Hilal defense.
But the visitors eventually settled into a smooth passing rhythm, dictating the pace for the rest of the first half and almost breaking the deadlock when Uruguayan Nicolas Milesi found himself clear on goal in the 42nd minute.
Kharbin sent a free kick tamely wide from a dangerous position as the Saudis started the second half with the same attacking intent, and Milesi and Yasir Alshahrani also had chances as Al Hilal turned the screw.
But Reds began to string together some attacking moves of their own as the half progressed, and the home side almost had the ball in the net when Koroki powered a header at Almuaiouf and Silva was unable to bury the follow-up.
Things got better for Urawa when Aldawasari was sent off after clattering into Wataru Endo to pick up his second yellow card, and Silva took full advantage when he galloped forward with two minutes left on the clock and drove the ball past Almuaiouf into the top corner.
“Congratulations to Urawa Reds,” said Al Hilal manager Ramon Diaz, who was looking to lead his team to its first ACL title. “I’m really satisfied with my players, they performed well. I’m very proud of what we have achieved.
“We have done really well in this competition. Maybe we could have come here in a better position if we could have scored some of the chances that we created in the first leg in Riyadh. But I’m very proud of my team.”