Rafael Silva netted the winner in Albirex Niigata’s 2-1 win over Gamba Osaka in Wednesday’s first leg of the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup semi-final - a fixture that saw both sides finish with 10 men.
Albirex are targeting their first ever appearance in the final of the competition, and immediately showed their ambitions as Ryohei Yamazaki went on a brilliant run from the halfway line, beating two players before seeing his low shot parried by Yosuke Fujigaya.
It was opposite number Tatsuya Morita’s turn to produce a smart stop on Takahiro Futagawa’s free-kick, but the Albirex custodian could do little to prevent Kotaro Omori’s perfect header from going in in the 36th minute.
The hosts immediately went level thanks to Kosuke Yamamoto’s excellent display of footwork inside the Gamba box, the winger turning his man before lashing in his team’s equaliser.
Yamazaki’s pace and directness continued to threaten Gamba’s rearguard, and Yamamoto almost capitalised on a free-kick his team-mate had earned when Leo Silva shot took a deflection of him in the wall, before cannoning off the bar.
The midfielder’s good work was undone when he was sent off after being caught deliberately hacking at Shu Kurata’s ankle.
But just when Albirex would have been content hanging on for the draw, Rafael Silva - who had endured terrible luck with injuries to this point - went through on goal before side-footing home the winner to spark wild celebrations from the home team’s bench.
Masaaki Yanagishita’s men will travel to Saitama Stadium on Saturday hoping to fulfill their dreams of progressing to their maiden Nabisco Cup final against the holders, who must do without Kim Jung-ya after he was expelled for his second booking on Wednesday.