SUWON, SOUTH KOREA - Brazilian forward Serginho scored the decisive goal in the 82nd minute as Kashima Antlers reached their first-ever Asian Champions League final with a 6-5 aggregate win over Suwon Bluewings following a 3-3 draw in the second leg of the semifinal on Wednesday.
In a man-of-the match performance, the 23-year-old, who transferred from Brazilian powerhouse Santos less than three months ago, assisted on the visitors’ first two goals before netting the equalizer that clinched a place in the final.
Needing a win or draw to advance following their thrilling 3-2 come-from-behind victory in the first leg at home on Oct. 3, Antlers were facing elimination after the Bluewings scored twice in the span of a minute to take a 2-1 lead at Suwon World Cup Stadium.
But Go Oiwa’s men remained confident of securing the result provided they stuck with their game plan of defending high up and hitting on the counter, according to Serginho.
“We simply encouraged each other to continue how we’d been playing, knowing if we played our game, our chances would come,” he said.
With the visitors leading thanks to Shuto Yamamoto’s 25th-minute opener, Lim Sang-hyun poached the equalizer seven minutes into the second half after Kashima keeper Kwoun Sun-tae deflected Yeom Ki-hun’s close-range shot into his path.
Suwon almost took the lead immediately afterward, but Kwoun earned Kashima a momentary reprieve by parrying Kim Jun-hyoung’s shot over the bar for a corner.
The home team took a 2-1 lead just seconds later, however, when Jo Sung-jin headed in from Yeom’s corner kick. With the aggregate score at 4-4, Bluewings were poised to advance on away goals.
The South Koreans took another step toward the final when Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic gave them a 3-1 lead by finishing an attacking movement on the right side with a tightly angled shot.
It was the Antlers who score the match’s first goal.
Having set up Atsuto Uchida’s winner in the first leg with an injury-time free kick, Serginho once again assisted from a dead ball, finding left back Yamamoto inside the box for the opening goal.
After ducking behind the Suwon defense unmarked, Yamamoto crouched low to nod in the sharply dipping ball sent in from the right side.
Trailing 3-1, the visitors pulled a goal back through Daigo Nishi in the 64th minute. The midfielder beat Suwon keeper Shin Hwa-yong from the right of the six-yard box after receiving a short pass from Serginho.
The goal leveled the aggregate score at 5-5, with equal away goals, setting the stage for extra time.
But Serginho broke the deadlock with eight minutes remaining in regulation when Yuma Suzuki touched the ball to him directly in front of goal following a Kashima throw-in.
“Suzuki was there ahead of me, and I was thinking it might spill out toward me. I struck it well, knowing that everyone was willing it in,” Serginho said.
Serginho, who has now scored in four straight matches across all competitions, said a pep-talk from Antlers’ technical director, Brazil legend Zico, had given the players confidence heading into the match.
“For him to speak to us pumped us up, (and) gave us that much more confidence. (It) made us feel that if we don’t make it to the final, then getting this far was meaningless,” he said.
Awaiting Antlers in the two-leg final is Iranian side Persepolis, which defeated Qatari club Al Sadd 2-1 on aggregate.
Coming into the second leg with a 1-0 advantage, the Tehran club held on for a 1-1 draw at home to reach the tournament final for the first time.