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Urawa defeat Al Hilal 2-1 on aggregate to capture third ACL title

07 May 2023

Urawa defeat Al Hilal 2-1 on aggregate to capture third ACL title

On Saturday 6 May, the second leg of the AFC Champions League (ACL) 2022 final was played at Saitama Stadium 2002, where Urawa Red Diamonds defeated the reigning champions Al Hilal SFC of Saudi Arabia 1-0, winning the two-legged tie 2-1 to claim their third Asian title, the most in the competition's history. Urawa's SAKAI Hiroki was named MVP of the tournament, while goalkeeper NISHIKAWA Shusaku, who contributed to the victory with a series of outstanding saves, was named Man of the Match.

Urawa returned home with an away goal advantage after drawing the first leg 1-1 in Riyadh a week ago, needing a win or a 0-0 draw in the second leg to claim the title. For this match, 53,374 supporters showed up to the stadium and cheered before kick-off, creating an overwhelming atmosphere.

Against Urawa, who fielded the same starting line-up as in the first leg, Al Hilal made three changes. Abdullah AL-HAMDAN and Abdullah OTAYF replaced the suspended Salem ALDAWSARI and injured Salman AL-FARAJ, while Andre CARRILLO replaced Moussa MAREGA as the third foreign player.

Desperately needing a goal to win, Al Hilal began to attack early in the game, as Odion IGHALO reacted to a cross from the right, followed by Al-Hamdan and others who came close to scoring off the deflection, but Nishikawa made a fine save to deny this attempt.

Al Hilal, who won their first ACL title by beating Urawa in the 2019 final, controlled the ball possession in search for their opportunity to attack, with Al-Hamdan and Carrillo both attempting shots from distance in the 21st and 42nd minutes respectively, only for Nishikawa to make the save.

Urawa, playing against the wind in the first half, showed great intensity to fight for the ball and limited the opponents’ passing routes by creating blocks and tightening their defence. The home side gradually began to create opportunities to counterattack and threaten the opposing goal around the midpoint of the first half.

In the 30th minute, Sakai, who made an overlapping run down the right flank, received a pass from ITO Atsuki, drove into the penalty area before delivering a cross to KOROKI Shinzo, who connected with his right foot, but his effort struck the crossbar. Despite being called offside, KOIZUMI Yoshio also fired a shot that ricocheted off the post just before the break.

The golden moment arrived just after halftime, when Koizumi won a free kick near the centre mark. The long ball delivered by IWAO Ken was headed by Marius HOIBRATEN, who sent the ball into the mix, inducing an own goal from Carrillo, who tried to clear the ball out of the goal mouth.

Urawa had a chance to add to their tally in the 74th minute when OKUBO Tomoaki fired a shot from the right of the penalty area and Ito from the middle two minutes later but could not find the target.

Meanwhile, Al Hilal, led by head coach Ramon DIAZ, a former Argentine international looking to make up for the loss in the 2017 ACL final, utilised their substitutions to change their formation in midfield and add more layers to their offence.

In efforts to equalise the match, Al Hilal made a late surge by creating several good chances, including Ighalo's attempt to score off a cross in the 65th minute and Saleh AL-SHEHRI's shot in the 73rd. In the 81st minute, Ighalo attempted to redirect the shot taken by MICHAEL. Carrillo and Ighalo came close to the Urawa goal in successive plays in the 90th minute, but Urawa's defence, led by Nishikawa, maintained their composure to keep the ball out of the goal.

Towards the end of the match, the Urawa supporters increased the volume of their chants of “We are Reds!”Urawa survived the late surge of Al Hilal to win 1-0 and recapture the Asian crown in the J.League's 30th anniversary season.

It was Urawa's third ACL title, following wins in 2007 and 2017, and it is the first time in ACL history that a team has won the title three times since the competition began in 2002.

As a result, Urawa will enter the ACL from the play-offs for the 2023 season, which starts this summer, and will attempt to become the first team since Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad (2004, 2005) to win back-to-back Asian crowns. Last season's J.League champions Yokohama F. Marinos, runners-up Kawasaki Frontale, and Emperor's Cup winners Ventforet Kofu will also participate in this year’s ACL from Japan.

Coaches and Players' Comments

Maciej SKORZA, Head Coach (Urawa Red Diamonds)
We prepared as much as we could from the preseason camp for this big stage of the ACL because we knew we had great players and potential, and after all of that hard work, we are thrilled with this outcome. Our technical staff checked every detail of our opponents, so we knew it was important to challenge them in one-on-one situations without giving them space, and to play a compact defence. We wanted to play a more attacking football by holding the ball longer, but our goal was to win the championship, so we didn't have to risk conceding goals. We are happy to have won against a great team like Al Hilal.

GK NISHIKAWA Shusaku (Urawa Red Diamonds)
I feel that we were able to showcase what we have been doing in our league. We knew how our opponents would attack from the flanks, so we communicated well with each other while tightening up the spaces in the middle. For some of the players it was their first ACL final, so I wanted to give them a successful experience. Winning the ACL in 2017 was a massive achievement for me, and I'm sure many of these players can make the national team if they gain confidence that they can do well in this competition, as well as in the Club World Cup. I am still striving to compete at higher levels, so this was a huge win for me as well.

DF SAKAI Hiroki (Urawa Red Diamonds)
The defenders were expected to keep a clean sheet, and we went into today’s game with that in mind. We believed our offence would score one and that was exactly what they did. Today's Urawa supporters were special. It was very encouraging that so many supporters came and put pressure on the opponents. The ACL has been one of my goals since I came back to Japan, so I am happy to have won it today. However, I am not totally satisfied with our overall performance, so we want to improve as a team and be able to showcase a stronger performance against opponents of this level.

FW KOROKI Shinzo (Urawa Red Diamonds)
I've never forgotten losing to Al Hilal in the 2019 ACL final, so I'm happy to have been able to repay the favour. I've been waiting for this moment for so long and I am glad to have revenge for all those who experienced the disappointment in 2019. I feel relieved because this was a match we couldn’t afford to loss especially after returning home with a point from the first leg played away from home. The supporters created a great atmosphere. Although I am used to it, I think some of the younger players were a little nervous because they were experiencing it for the first time, but “this is” Urawa. We broke the record for the most ACL titles won, and we are now aiming to become the first club to win the ACL and the J.League in the same year.

Ramon DIAZ, Head Coach (Al Hilal)
It was a very tough game, but we played better than we did in the first leg in Riyadh. We failed to score despite creating many chances and ended up losing from an unfortunate mistake. However, we were able to make it this far because of the hard work put in by the players, so I want to thank the players, the club, and the fans. We are sorry for this result, but I think we showcased our mettle as champions. The players will return to domestic competition next week and we will continue to strive to compete at a high level again.


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