Soccer | SOCCER SCENE

Urawa Reds ready for new chapter after ACL victory

by Andrew McKirdy

Urawa Reds have gained an unwanted reputation for choking on the big stage in the 10 years since they first won the Asian Champions League, but that tag may have to be re-evaluated after they reclaimed the title with a series of composed performances in this year’s competition.

Urawa lifted the ACL trophy last Saturday after beating Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal 1-0 at Saitama Stadium for a 2-1 aggregate win, giving the club its second Asian title. The first, in 2007, promised to usher in an era of domestic and continental dominance for Japan’s best-supported team, but the reality turned out to be dramatically different.

Reds steadily slipped down the J. League pecking order in the years that followed, sinking lower and lower until they reached their nadir with a 15th-place finish in 2011. That prompted the club to bring in former Sanfrecce Hiroshima manager Mihailo Petrovic in a bid to revive its fortunes, and the Serbian responded by leading the team to a third-place finish in his first season.

The years that followed, however, turned out to be a frustrating catalogue of near misses and agonizing failures.

Reds made a strong challenge for the 2014 J. League title and found themselves in position to clinch the trophy two games early if they beat Gamba Osaka in front of a full house at Saitama Stadium. A draw would have set them up to comfortably finish the job in the weeks to come, but impatience got the better of them and they charged forward in search of a late winning goal. Gamba gladly pounced on their opponent’s naivety, scoring twice on the counterattack to snatch a 2-0 win that ultimately propelled them all the way to the title.

“We wanted to settle it here today,” Urawa midfielder Yosuke Kashiwagi said after the game. “We didn’t play badly but at the end we went looking for the win too much.”

Gamba returned to haunt Reds the following year, knocking them out of the J. League championship playoffs before beating them again in the Emperor’s Cup final. Then, after breezing into last season’s championship final, Urawa again came up against a cannier opponent, taking a two-goal lead against Kashima Antlers before panic set in and they conceded twice to lose the title on away goals.

A painful era came to an end when the club fired Petrovic this summer after a poor run of results in the J. League. A serious tilt at the ACL title looked extremely unlikely when Takafumi Hori replaced him in the dugout, but then things slowly but surely started to change.

Under Hori, Urawa moved away from the possession-heavy style favored by Petrovic toward a more compact, direct approach. That was never more evident than in the ACL semifinal second leg at Saitama Stadium, when a Shanghai SIPG side featuring Brazil internationals Oscar and Hulk struggled to make an impact against a gritty and disciplined Urawa.

“I think Urawa are a very good team,” said Shanghai manager Andre Villas-Boas after the game, which Reds won 1-0. “They play wonderful football . . . 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.”

Given Villas-Boas’ comments, it is tempting to wonder if Reds’ newfound pragmatism had taken him by surprise. There was certainly nothing beautiful about the way they wore down Al Hilal to claim the title on Saturday night, and it was striking how few clear-cut chances they allowed the technically superior Saudis to create.

“I think we wanted to win more than they did,” said defender Tomoya Ugajin. “We knew that we would have to do a lot of running. We had difficult moments but it was hard work that got us through the 90 minutes.”

Urawa, which was forced to play a game behind closed doors in 2014 after fans displayed a banner that was deemed to be racist, has not always made itself an easy club for neutrals to love. It would take a heart of stone to begrudge it this long-awaited triumph, however, and there could be more good times to come now that the club has qualified for next month’s Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

So have Urawa Reds finally turned a corner and added mental resolve to the talent that was always there? Only time — and trophies — will tell.