Urawa breathes sigh of relief after exorcizing demons in ACL final

by

Staff Writer

Urawa Reds lifted the Asian Champions League trophy for the first time in a decade on Saturday — then breathed a sigh of relief that they had not let their fans down again.

“For the past few years, the supporters have created this great atmosphere for us but we haven’t been able to repay them by winning in front of them,” said Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, after his team had beaten Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal 1-0 in the second leg of the ACL final at Saitama Stadium to capture the title 2-1 on aggregate.

“We were determined not to make the fans go through that again.”

Rafael Silva scored in the 88th minute to seal the victory for Reds in front of 57,727 fans at their home stadium, giving the club its second Asian title having beaten Iran’s Sepahan in 2007.

Urawa — Japan’s most popular club — has endured numerous disappointments in the years since then, coming up short in several big matches including last year’s J. League title decider against Kashima Antlers.

But the Saitama side finally cast off its reputation for choking under pressure after neutralizing Al Hilal, limiting the Saudi champions to only a few genuine scoring chances despite them enjoying the lion’s share of possession.

“I didn’t really have to face many shots on target and that was down to our defense’s good work,” said Nishikawa. “The fact that we were able to show what we are made of in a final and win the trophy is proof of how much the team has grown.

“I think the work that the medical team did getting us ready and overcoming the jet lag after the first leg in Saudi Arabia really paid off tonight. We wanted to be ready for tonight and the fact that we were was down to all of us. We wanted to celebrate with the whole team and with the supporters.”

Reds drew 1-1 with Al Hilal in the first leg in Riyadh on Nov. 18, with Silva scoring the opener to give his team a crucial away goal.

The Brazilian forward spent the week struggling with an injury before being passed fit to start the second leg, and the 25-year-old took full advantage when he broke forward with two minutes remaining to smash the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Almuaiouf.

“He has a lot of individual quality and we were looking for him to deliver,” Urawa manager Takafumi Hori said of Silva, who finished the tournament tied for second-top scorer with nine goals.

“As far as how tired he was, I asked the medical staff for advice and I had observed him in training. I kept him on the pitch and he got the goal for us.”

Urawa’s cause was helped by a red card for Al Hilal’s Salem Aldawsari for a second bookable offense in the 79th minute, and a composed defensive performance helped see the result through to the final whistle.

“We got lucky (that they had a player sent off) but we kept our concentration until the end,” said midfielder Takuya Aoki. “Everyone was communicating. They had chances to win it, but by talking to each other we were able to clear the danger.

“I think they panicked a little bit. We were winning the second balls, they were starting to panic and that made things easier for us.”

Al Hilal, which was looking to win the competition for the first time, was also hampered by injuries that kept influential midfielder Carlos Eduardo out of the second leg and forced star striker Omar Khrbin — the competition’s top scorer on 10 goals — to leave the field in the 62nd minute.

“Maybe we had bad luck in the first leg where one of our key players, Carlos Eduardo, was injured,” said Al Hilal manager Ramon Diaz. “Also today we saw an injury for Omar Khrbin. This all complicated the mission for us.

“But I’m happy with the players because we had a good season last year. We won two trophies and got to the final today. I’m satisfied with that.”

Reds will now represent Asia in the Dec. 6-16 Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, and will play European champions Real Madrid if they come through their first match.

“You don’t often get the chance to play on the world stage so we want to make the most of it,” said forward Yuki Muto. “If we win one game then we play Real Madrid, so hopefully we can get there and take on the world’s best.”

Urawa midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi was also named ACL player of the tournament.

“I’m very happy to win the MVP award, but personally I don’t think it should have been me so I feel slightly conflicted about it,” said Kashiwagi. “But since I have been chosen, I am very flattered and I will do my best to play in a way that does it justice.

“We played good teams in this tournament and we learned a lot from that. We did well at home but not so well away. Our supporters here help us a lot, and I think we all came together to win this tournament.”