Football Tribe SEA Editor
The Saitama Stadium 2002 is set to be the witness of Asian football history being made. After an intriguing encounter at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal and Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds are ready to resume hostilities in Saitama on Sunday in the second leg of the 2019 AFC Champions League final, with the former holding a slender 1-0 advantage from the first leg. With both Al-Hilal and Urawa having 2 ACL titles underneath their belt, whoever emerges out triumphant from this encounter will equal the record amount of ACL titles won by a club, with South Korea’s Pohang Steelers the sole owner of that distinction with their 3 ACL titles.
Al-Hilal will have the extra incentive of gunning for their first ACL title in 19 years, having last won the coveted title in 2000 when the competition was still called the Asian Club Championship. Since then Al-Hilal have made their way to two ACL finals, losing both the 2014 edition to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers and the 2017 edition to Urawa, meaning that if Al-Hilal wins this year’s ACL, they’ll avenge their 2017 defeat and banish those demons from two years ago away. The fact that the ACL has been regularly won by teams from East Asia since 2011 (when Qatar’s Al-Sadd won the title) added more to Al-Hilal’s motivation as they seek to make West Asia proud by ending East Asia’s stranglehold over the ACL title.
Urawa, on the other hand, have a different kind of motivation coming into the second leg of the final. Not only that they wanted to turn around that 1-0 deficit and lift the title in front of their adoring fans in their own backyard, they also carry the pride of the nation with them as well as should Urawa win the ACL, the title will remain in Japan after it was won by Kashima Antlers the previous year. An Urawa win would also ensure East Asia’s dominance in the ACL, while in a more personal term of things, it’ll be the perfect highlight in a season full of struggles. Tipped to compete among Japan’s elite in the 2019 J.League 1, Urawa ended up often flirting with the dangers of relegation this season and look set to finish either mid-table or in the lower reaches of the table. However, domestic woes aside, Urawa have been phenomenal in the continental stage so far and the ACL title would cap off their efforts perfectly.
Al-Hilal made their way to Saitama in high spirits, even though they lamented that they should’ve won by a bigger margin two weeks ago, they remain confident that they could finish the job at the Saitama Stadium 2002. They will bring with them a legion of around 3000 fans, with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordering four aircrafts to carry them from Riyadh all the way to Japan. Răzvan Lucescu will have the compliment of his full squad at his disposal, which includes former Swansea City and Lyon man Bafétimbi Gomis, former Juventus and Toronto FC man Sebastian Giovinco, Saudi internationals Salem Al-Dawsari and Abdullah Otayf, as well as Peruvian winger André Carrillo, the former Benfica and Watford man having scored the winner in the first leg.
Urawa will have their own legion of fans backing them in the second leg, with the Saitama Stadium 2002 completely sold out on the eve of the second leg. They will also receive an additional boost in from of number one goalie Shushaku Nishikawa, who sat out the first leg thanks to suspension. Urawa head coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki will be definitely playing Nishikawa underneath the sticks, after an error from deputy goalie Haruki Fukushima in the first leg had practically given Al-Hilal the win. Tomoaki Makino will be once again called upon to marshal the back, while Shinzo Koroki will be the team’s focal point of attack as usual, with Ewerton ready to run the show from midfield.
Al-Hilal may have held the advantage with previous stats on their side – no side other than Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of South Korea in 2004 has lost the ACL final after winning the first leg – but Urawa have defied the odds a number of times throughout this year’s ACL. Just ask Ulsan Hyundai – during the Round of 16, the South Koreans managed to eke out a 2-1 win at the Saitama Stadium 2002 in the first leg only for Urawa to demolish them 3-0 in Ulsan in the return leg. Anything can happen in football, so don’t write Urawa off just yet despite their poor run of form in the domestic front. Tomorrow’s second leg promises to be an intriguing encounter between the favorites of the West and the plucky underdogs of the East. May the best team win.