SAITAMA – Twice previously in the last 12 years — in 2007 and 2017 — Urawa Reds took to the Saitama Stadium pitch backed by a screaming wall of red-clad supporters, stood tall against West Asian opposition and ended the night as continental champions.
On Sunday they fell short of accomplishing the feat for a third time as Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal confidently strode to a 2-0 win for a 3-0 aggregate victory in the 2019 Asian Champions League final.
“I want to thank our coach for strengthening the individual abilities on the team into a collective, and for bringing Al Hilal on the right track after 20 years of missing the title,” said former France international Bafetibi Gomis, who was named tournament MVP.
It was a chance for the Saudi titans to redeem themselves after coming up short in that 2017 series with a 1-1 draw in Riyadh and a 1-0 loss in Saitama. This time they had the advantage of a 1-0 home win coming into the second leg, which was attended by 58,109.
“Everybody in the club, the team, every player has given a contribution to this fantastic performance,” said Al Hilal manager Razvan Lucescu. “Especially I have to thank my players because they are the real heroes. There is no coach or staff that can win without players.”
That Urawa managed to make it to a third ACL final was somewhat miraculous, considering the team’s struggles in this year’s J. League first division and a midseason coaching change that saw Tsuyoshi Otsuki replace Oswaldo Oliveira on the bench.
“In the knockout stage we had two legs to prepare,” Otsuki said. “After the first leg we analyzed the teams and I gave the players feedback and they responded really well. That’s how we got to the final.”
While the visitors earned the majority of chances in the first half, Urawa was not without opportunities of its own. The best came in the 23rd minute, when Tomohiro Sekine was set up by Kazuki Nagasawa but found his shot parried by Al Hilal goalkeeper Abdulla Al-Mayouf.
“In the first leg Al Hilal pressed high,” Otsuki said when asked about his preparations. “We didn’t have many passing options in our build-up, so I asked the goalkeepers to join in the build-up.
“In the first half it went quite well, but in the second half we conceded many set pieces and that put us under pressure.”
The Saudi side earned a big chance in the 39th minute when Salem Al-Dawsari was knocked down just outside the penalty area by Daiki Hashioka, drawing a free kick in a near-perfect position. But Sebastian Giovinco’s effort went straight into the wall and the ensuing follow-up was whistled offside.
An error by an Al Hilal defender gifted Urawa a corner kick at the end of the first half, but Nagasawa’s effort was cleared and both teams went into halftime scoreless.
Urawa narrowly avoided giving up a goal in the 50th minute, with a clutch Shusaku Nishikawa block followed by several Reds defenders throwing themselves in front of the ball prevented Al Hilal from getting a clear shot.
Five minutes later, Fabricio had a much clearer chance for the Reds, but his unmarked header went straight at Al-Mayouf.
The next big chance for Al Hilal came in the 69th minute, but Gomis’ point-blank shot was cleared by Nishikawa for a corner.
But it was in the 74th minute, at the end of a terrific sequence of passes that left Urawa’s defenders in the dust, that Al-Dawsari tipped the ball past Nishikawa and into the net, sparking joyous celebrations in the away end as well as on the sideline.
The goal was the end of a two-year journey of redemption for Al-Dawsari, who in the second leg of the 2017 final was ejected in the 78th minute, opening up the door for Rafael Silva to score the game winner and title clincher for Urawa just 10 minutes later.
Gomis eventually did find his goal in stoppage time, and it wasn’t long before Uzbek referee Valentine Kovalenko blew the whistle to the delight of roughly 2,000 Al Hilal supporters in attendance as Al Hilal became West Asia’s first ACL champions since 2011.
“Since our first day in Austria the fans pushed us, and they gave us the responsibility and confidence we needed to win this trophy,” said Lucescu, moments after several players rushed into the news conference and doused him with bottles of water.
The result marked Japan’s first defeat in an ACL final following prior successes by Urawa in 2007 and 2017, Gamba Osaka in 2008 and Kashima Antlers in 2018.
Urawa, which sits in 13th place in the J1 with two rounds left, will resume its J1 domestic campaign on Saturday when it plays FC Tokyo at Ajinomoto Stadium.
Al Hilal, meanwhile, will now switch gears and begin to prepare for the FIFA Club World Cup, where it will face Tunisia’s Esperance in the quarterfinals with a chance to play Brazil’s Flamengo going to the winner.
“It’s fantastic for us to be there, it’s an honor,” Lucescu said. “We have to be perfect because we’ll face teams representing all the conferences. It’s a different mentality.
“But first let us enjoy these two or three days and not think at all about football.”