Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reds roll into Asian Champions League final



By the skin of their teeth the Urawa Reds staked their place in the finals of the Asian Champions League on Wednesday.

The J-League holders beat K-League champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 5-3 on penalties in the second leg of the home-and-away semifinal at Saitama Stadium after playing to a 2-2 draw in regular time.

The teams also played to a 2-2 draw in the first leg in South Korea on Oct. 3, giving the Reds a slight advantage heading into the return leg.

But true to his word, Urawa manager Holger Osieck had his team play for the win rather than throw everybody behind the ball in hopes of eking out a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, which would have been enough to see the Reds through due to the away goals rule.

Brazilian attacker Washington, playing in a black mask to protect the nose he injured in Urawa's 4-2 league win over JEF United Chiba on Saturday, wasted no time in exhibiting his willingness to play his usual physical style.

The Brazilian recorded the first shot of the match 58 seconds in and tested out his new headgear a short while later by heading a free kick from the Urawa area.
It took Washington 21 minutes to show why Seongnam manager Kim Hag-bum singled out the J.League's joint leading scorer last year as Urawa's biggest offensive threat.

After collecting a cross from Robson Ponte at the right of the Seongnam area, Washington tore off toward goal and launched a blistering shot into the opposite side of the net that keeper Kim Yong-dae had next to no chance on.

Both teams had limited opportunities to score as the first half wore on and what chances did materialize were quickly neutralized by some confident goalkeeping.
Seongnam made the trip to Saitama minus ace striker Mota, who injured ligaments in his right knee during the team's final K-League match a week and a half ago.

The visitors seemed to miss the tournament's leading scorer early on, as the three forwards playing in his absence-Itamar, Nam Ki-il and Choi Sunk-kuk--rarely threatened the Urawa defense.

But that all changed in the second half when the match went from interesting to absolutely gripping as the Seongnam forwards found another gear.

A slip up by defender Keisuke Tsuboi in the 57th minute allowed Seongnam to equalize. Tsuboi, who also had a blunder result in a Seongnam goal in the first leg, lost his footing while marking Itamar to the right of keeper Ryota Tsuzuki. Suddenly free of his marker but too close to Tsuzuki to bury the ball, Itamar fed Choi in front of goal for an easy tap in.

The goal added newfound tension to the proceedings and the 51,651 already-vocal fans in attendance cranked the volume level up another notch.
The Reds, meanwhile, lifted their game a notch as they attempted to retake the lead and finish off a team that simply would not roll over.

But just as Urawa's three-pronged attack of Washington, Tatsuya Tanaka and Ponte started to test the waters at one end of the pitch, Seongnam surprised everybody with a go-ahead goal.

Once again it was Itamar who got the play started. The 27-year-old Brazilian uncorked a stinging shot from the edge of the area that Tsuzuki could only parry away, and Kim Dong-hun beat Marcus Tulio Tanaka to the rebound to head home.

The pulsating encounter took yet another twist moments later when Urawa midfielder Makoto Hasebe slotted home a pass from Tulio to knot the score at 2-2.

Washington and Keita Suzuki both had glorious chances to put the Reds back ahead, but both skied their efforts and the match headed into extra time.
With nothing decided 30 minutes later, it was up to the crap shoot known as penalties to decide the outcome of what was surely one of the most entertaining matches ever to be played in the Asian Champions League.

Ponte, Washington, Yuki Abe, Yuichiro Nagai and Tadaaki Hirakawa all scored for Urawa, while Tsuzuki made the all-important save on Choi to earn the historic victory.

The Reds are the first Japanese team to reach the finals of Asia's premier club competition since the adoption of its current format in 2002. The last Japanese team to claim a continental crown was Shimizu S-Pulse in 2002 when the tournament was known as the Asian Cup Winners' Cup.

The Reds will play the winner of the semifinal between Sepahan of Iran and Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates. The two-leg final is scheduled for Nov. 7 and 14.

The winner of the tournament earns a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December. Since the J.League winner will also represent the host country at the CWC, the ACL runner-up will represent Asia at the prestigious year-end club competition should Urawa take both the ACL and the J.League titles.

Copyright: C.G. Williams & Soccerphile

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