Football Tribe Asia
The story of Urawa Red Diamonds this season is a tale of contrast between two fronts. Domestically the Saitama giants are struggling, languishing on 13th in the table and being dragged into a tense relegation battle within the bottom half of the J1 League table. Urawa also performed poorly in the domestic cup competitions, being beaten 5-4 on aggregate by Kashima Antlers in the 2019 J.League Cup quarterfinals and more embarrassingly, being humiliated at home 2-0 by fourth-tier side Honda FC in the 2019 Emperor’s Cup round of 16. With 7 more games to go, Urawa are only 4 points off the relegation play-off zone, however, they could take solace with the fact that they’re only 3 points off Vissel Kobe on 9th.
On the continental front, however, Urawa are a different beast altogether. They’re the sole Japanese side standing in the 2019 AFC Champions League, advancing all the way to the semifinals after eliminating the likes of Chinese giants Beijing Sinobo Guoan, Thai League champions Buriram United, Korean giants Ulsan Hyundai, and defending Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG. The knockout ties against Ulsan and Shanghai saw Urawa coming from behind to eliminate the South Koreans 4-2 on aggregate, while the latter was dispatched after two gritty ties with Urawa coming on top thanks to the away goals rule.
Standing in the way of Urawa and their second ACL final in three years are Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao, the current Chinese Super League leaders. With World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in the manager’s seat and boasting the likes of former Benfica man Anderson Talisca, former Spurs and Barcelona player Paulinho, and newly naturalized Chinese striker Ai Kesen (formerly known as Brazilian Elkeson), Evergrande are out to claim their third continental title, having last won the ACL in 2015. Interestingly, Evergrande’s failure to beat Urawa in their two group stage meetings in 2016 contributed to their exit from that year’s competition in the group stage.
The two sides met at the Saitama Stadium 2002 on October 2nd for the first leg of the semifinal, with Urawa looking to redeem themselves after their Honda FC humiliation as well as their failure to take three points from Sagan Tosu in their relegation six-pointer only a few days prior to the match, while Evergrande are in a slight tailspin having lost two of their most recent league matches, 3-1 away to Jiangsu Suning and a shock 1-0 home defeat to Wuhan Zall. The two results sandwiched a draw against Kashima Antlers in the ACL quarterfinals that ensured Evergrande’s progress to the semis.
Cheered on by their boisterous supporters, it was Urawa who drew first blood. In the 19th minute, Brazilian striker Fabrício scored a thunderbolt from 25 yards that left Evergrande goalie Zeng Cheng stunned. Leading 1-0 into half-time, Urawa became more confident and with the atmosphere at the Saitama Stadium 2002 escalating into fervent levels, Takahiro Sekine delivered the deathblow for Evergrande with a 75th minute strike that sealed the result. Despite matching Urawa in terms of possession, Evergrande were overall poor during the 90 minutes, mustering only 5 shots with one of them being on target, while their passes and successful passes, whilst almost matching Urawa’s, are still inferior compared to the Japanese side.
Whilst Urawa had the mighty task of defending their lead at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou within three week’s time, for now, they could revel with their supporters as the Red Diamonds managed to carve out another bright moment in their bleak season.