Junior Negrao converted a penalty in the final seconds of extra time to send South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai FC into the Asian Champions League final with a 2-1 semifinal win over Japanese debutants Vissel Kobe on Sunday at Qatar’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
Vissel ‘keeper Daiya Maekawa came out to challenge the Brazilian in the penalty area in the 117th minute, fouled him unnecessarily and was then unable to stop the perfectly placed penalty.
Without superstar playmaker Andres Iniesta, the Emperor’s Cup champions struggled to organize their attacks. The Spaniard, out with a thigh injury suffered during Vissel’s round-of-16 win, watched from the stands as Hotaru Yamaguchi scored from a set piece seven minutes after the intermission.
Defender Ryuho Kikuchi darted toward Takuya Yasui as he took a corner on the right, dragged his marker out of the penalty area and opened a lane for Yamaguchi to shoot through.
“Ulsan were stronger than we were,” Yamaguchi said. “We played as hard as we could. Now our mission is to get better and we’ll go home with our heads held high.”
Daiju Sasaki appeared to put his team up 2-0, but his 75th minute goal was overruled by the video assistant referee. Vissel took possession in midfield but ostensibly committed a foul in the process, negating an otherwise slick attack as Sasaki volleyed in a blocked shot.
Six minutes later, Ulsan equalized through Bjorn Maars Johnsen. The goal was waved off for an offside call that was overruled by VAR.
Ulsan created the best opportunities during a first half in which both sides defended well. Midfielder Kim In-sung and Negrao both threatened from close range, while Vissel mounted little in the way of coordinated attacks.
Ulsan came within inches of winning in the final seconds of regulation when Negrao headed a powerfully struck cross off the post.
Maekawa pulled off a superb save in the fourth minute of extra time, but that proved to be Vissel’s high-water mark as the J. League side failed to capitalize on a string of defensive lapses by their opponents.
Brazilian striker Douglas, who in the absence of Iniesta carried the lion’s share of the attacking burden in the semifinal, missed in the box early in the second period after a horrible back pass put him one on one with keeper Jo.
Douglas then had a header blocked from point-blank range before shooting the rebound over the open goal.
Ulsan will now face Iranian club Persepolis FC on Saturday at Al Janoub Stadium as the tournament, completed behind closed doors in a “bubble” in Qatar, comes to a close.
“Before the game we knew it was going to be tough but my players gave everything on the pitch,” Ulsan coach Kim Do-hoon said.
Kim said his team will try to recover from the hectic schedule during the six-day interval before the final.
“We will recover and analyze what we have done well so far. The players have really done well despite being tired with games every three days.
“Now we just want to win the last game and return to Korea with the title.”
Vissel coach Atsuhiro Miura refused to blame Iniesta’s absence for his team’s defeat.
“In soccer there are no ifs and buts,” said Miura, a former midfielder who was a member of Japan’s Asian Cup winning teams in 2000 and 2004. “Maybe he could have made a difference, but I am proud of the players.”
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