Urawa Reds are back in the AFC Champions League final. The two-time Asian champions are set for a rematch with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, who bested the Japanese club in the 2019 final, in a clash of two of the continent’s premier clubs.
The Reds’ two Asian championships is more than any other Japanese side and tied for the third-most of any club in the competition’s history. Al Hilal are the tournament’s top team, having won the crown four times and played in a record eight finals.
That sets the stage for a tantalizing final, which will kick off at Al Hilal’s King Fahd International Stadium on April 29 before finishing at Urawa’ Saitama Stadium 2002 on May 6.
How did Urawa get to Asia’s ultimate round, though? Let’s dive in:
Urawa earned their spot in the 2022 AFC Champions League by winning the 2021 Emperor’s Cup.
The 2021 season as a whole was a bit of a disappointment, with the Reds slipping all the way to sixth in the J1 table and out of the automatic qualifying positions for the Asian championship, but they made it to the Emperor’s Cup final, where Tomoaki Makino scored deep into stoppage time to beat Oita Trinita, 2-1. It marked Urawa’s record eighth Emperor’s Cup title and put them into the Champions League.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the group stage into single sites, played over two weeks last April, and the Reds were drawn into Group F, which was hosted in Buriram, Thailand.
Urawa cruised through their first two matches, beating Singapore’s Lion City Sailors and China’s Shandong Taishan by a combined score of 9-1. The group’s other favorite, South Korea’s Daegu FC, beat them in their first meeting, 1-0, before a scoreless draw in their second match.
Sitting on seven points from four matches, the Reds simply needed to finish strong to advance out of the group. They did just that, beating Lion City Sailors, 6-0, and Shandong Taishan, 5-0.
Urawa finished the group on 13 points, even with Daegu FC, with the Korea side taking first place on the head-to-head tiebreaker and the Reds advancing as the second place team in the group.
The East Region’s knockout stages were also played at a single site last August due to the pandemic, but this time Urawa’s home city of Saitama was chosen as the host.
Backed by their home crowd, the Reds made easy work of Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim FC in the round of 16 as Kasper Junker and David Moberg each scored two goals in a dominant 5-0 victory.
The quarter-final was nearly as comprehensive a win as Moberg, Takuya Iwanami, Yoshio Koizumi and Takahiro Akimoto all found the back of the net in a 4-0 victory over Thailand’s BG Pathum United.
Things got much tougher in the semi-final against the dominant team of this era of South Korean football, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, awaited them. Jeonbuk had won seven of the last eight K League championships, with the only title-less season coming in the campaign that they finished in second place and won the AFC Champions League.
Faced with such an outstanding opponent, Urawa had to be outstanding, and they were. Yusuke Matsuo scored early, only for Jeonbuk to equalize and send the match to extra time. There, Jeonbuk took a lead, but Junker’s 120th minute goal sent the match to penalty kicks in dramatic fashion.
Shusaku Nishikawa was massive in penalty kicks, making two outstanding saves and watching another go wide, while Alexander Scholz, Junker and Ataru Esaka all buried their shots to prevail in an epic semi-final.
The pandemic and a change in the AFC Champions League calendar in future years necessitated a change in the date of the 2022 tournament’s final, pushing it more than a year after the competition began, but it is now upon us.
Urawa’s outstanding work, dating back to the 2021 Emperor’s Cup, through the group stage and a knockout stage that included a memorable semi-final triumph has taken them here - the Champions League final. A potential third Asian crown awaits.