Urawa Reds went to Saudi Arabia for the first leg of the AFC Champions League final against Al Hilal and came home with a big advantage in their quest to claim the continental crown.
The Reds drew 1-1 at King Fahd International Stadium thanks to a Shinzo Koroki goal. Adding to Urawa’s outstanding night was the red card shown to goalscorer Salem Aldawsari late in the contest, leaving Al Hilal shorthanded for the second leg.
The Saudi side were on the front foot early on, urged on by an enthusiastic home crowd that created a terrific atmosphere in the ground. Those fans were delighted in the 13th minute when Urawa allowed a cross to go completely across the face of goal to Salem at the back post, who banged home the opening goal.
Urawa were able to repel Al Hilal from that point on, conceding possession to the home side, but conceding very few chances as they defended excellently. The Scandinavian duo in the center of defense, Alexander Scholz and Marius Høibråten, were especially good and repeatedly turned back Al Hilal.
The Reds took their chances when they were there, primarily looking to play long over the Al Hilal press. It was a smart strategy that put the Al Hilal defense under pressure when they were forced to retreat, which paid off in the 53rd minute.
Tomoaki Okubo got on the ball after the Reds broke the press and looked to play an incisive pass that would have played Koroki in all alone on goal. Al Hilal centerback Ali Albulayhi slid to intercept the pass, kicking it off the post. The ball then bounced in front of goal, where Koroki was first to react, sprinting onto it and smacking it into the back of the net.
An away draw would have been a solid result, but adding an away goal made it a job very well done. Then, Salem was red carded for kicking out in the 86th minute, ruling him out of the second leg and giving the Reds another feather in their cap heading back to Saitama.
When the final whistle went, the Urawa players made their way to the corner, where a section of traveling fans in red chanted and waved their flags for their beloved squad as they had for all 90 minutes. Together, they had taken a step towards winning the Asian championship.
Now, Urawa return to Japan for next Saturday’s second leg, when they host Al Hilal in front of an adoring crowd at Saitama Stadium 2002 with the continental crown within their grasp.