AFC Champions League- Urawa Red Diamonds- Road to Finals
Urawa Red Diamonds return to the AFC Champions League final on the 10-year anniversary of their first and last appearance in the continental club finale and they have done so on the back of a rollercoaster campaign.
Urawa qualified for the 2017 AFC Champions League after coming second in their domestic competition, finishing runners-up in the J-League.
The Saitama side’s recent history in the tournament has been below expectations, although their 2016 exit in the last 16 was a bitter pill to swallow as FC Seoul eliminated them on penalties after scoring a 121st-minute equaliser.
Paired in Group F alongside 2014 winners Western Sydney Wanderers of Australia, China’s Shanghai SIPG and Korea Republic’s FC Seoul, Urawa got off to the perfect start with a 4-0 victory in Sydney in February.
Shinzo Korki(56’), Tadanari Lee (58’), Tomoaki Makino (68’) and Rafael Da Silva (86’) scored one each to make it 4-0 against Western Sydney Wanderers at the Campbelltown Stadium in Sydney. With a ball possession of 82% in the second half, it is not a surprise what the score line reflects.
The Reds faced rivals FC Seoul next at home in their second group stage match. Yuki Muto and Tadanari Lee scored in the 9th minute and the 11th minute to make it 2-0 for the home team. Park Chu-Yong pulled one back on the 14th minute, just before Takahiro Sekine scored the third in the 15th minute. Tomoya Ugajin scored the fourth in the 21st minute to make it 4-1. Yoshiaki Komai wrapped up the match before half time scoring the fifth at the 45th minute. Dejan Damjanovic scored another one for the Korean side at the last minute of the second half injury time. It was absolutely a revenge on their rivals who knocked them out last season, for the Reds.
A top-of-the-table clash with Shanghai was next up, but Urawa found themselves 3-0 down early in the second half with Shi Ke(10’), Elkeson(45+1’) and Hulk(52’) scoring one each before Rafael Silva’s penalty and Wataru Endo’s goal proved too little too late in a 3-2 defeat.
But Brazilian Rafael de Silva was on hand to angle a low drive into the bottom right corner in the return fixture with the Chinese Super League team as a 1-0 win left the two sides level pegging on nine points apiece, six ahead of Western Sydney and FC Seoul.
In their second leg fixture against Western Sydney Wanderers, they were all ready to pounce upon their opponents. Takahiro Sekine opened the scoring in the 14th minute. Zlatan Ljubijankić scored in the 18th minute and Lee in the 43rd minute to keep a 3-0 lead at half time. Jumei Kusukami struck back once for the Australian side in the 66th minute. Rafael da Silva put the ball twice (71’ and 79’) in the away side’s net before Shinzo Koroki made it 6-1 at the last minute of second half injury time.
They lost to their Korean rivals 1-0 at the Seoul World Cup Stadium with Yoon Seoung-Won’s 38th minute strike. But they already qualified alongside Shanghai SIPG; both teams with 12 points from 6 games.
Next up for Urawa was a potentially tricky Round of 16 encounter with Korea Republic’s Jeju United who qualified as the runners up from Group H.
In the first leg, Jeju welcomed the Reds at Seogwipo. The Reds were the better of the two teams with 84% possession, but could not finish at the final third. One goal each from Marcelo Toscano in the 7th minute and Jin Sung-wook in th 92nd minute gave Jeju a 2-0 advantage to be taken at the Saitama Stadium.
The second leg was the same as the first leg, with Jeju playing with a park-the-bus formation and the Reds having 72% of the ball possession. But that did not stop the Diamonds from scoring. Goals from Shinzo Koroki (18’) and Tandari Lee (33’) made it a 2-2 aggregate. Thae match went to extra time, where Ryoto Moriwaki scored in the 114th minute to take the Reds to the quarter finals.
Coach Mihailo Petrovic was replaced by Takafumi Hori in the summer months and it was the former Urawa player who helmed the side in their first quarter-final appearance since 2008, against domestic rivals and unbeaten Kawasaki Frontale.
In similar fashion to the previous round Urawa returned home from the away leg with a two-goal deficit, although substitute Yuki Muto’s goal in a 3-1 defeat at least reduced the consequences of conceding at home. Yu Kobayashi’s brace (32’ and 85’) and Elsinho(50’) scored for the home team, while Yuki Muto (76’) scored for the Reds.
In the second leg, Kawasaki Frontale started in a 4-3-3 formation when Elsinho gave them a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute. Immediately after scoring the away goal, they went into park-the-bus formation. Similar to the last round’s 2nd leg, that did not stop the Diamonds from scoring. Koroki scored in the 35th minute before Zlatan Ljubijankić (70’), Rafael da Silva (84’) and Toshiyuki Takagi (85’) scored to take them to the semi-finals where they again face group rivals Shanghai SIPG.
A return to Shanghai for the first leg of the semi-final saw Urawa fall behind after 15 minutes after Brazilian striker Hulk opened the scoring. Yosuke Kashiwagi levelled on 35 minutes and, despite having to face intense Shanghai pressure, Urawa left China with a commendable 1-1 draw.
In the second leg, it was Silva who headed home the crucial goal from Kashiwagi’s corner in the 11th minute for his seventh of the campaign that saw Urawa maintain their perfect home record to advance to a final with Al Hilal.
The final will see East meet West for the first time in the 2017 competition with the first leg to be staged at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on November 18 and the decisive reverse fixture at Saitama Stadium in Saitama a week later as the sides battle it out to be crowned continental champions.