It's official: Urawa Reds are headed to the AFC Champions League final.
The only Japanese club to win the Asian championship twice will now play for an unprecedented third title after defeating Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea on penalties to book their spot in the continent’s ultimate match.
It took only 11 minutes for the Reds to go ahead in the thrilling encounter. David Moberg slipped a great ball in for Hiroki Sakai, who used his first touch to hit a blistering cross that Yusuke Matsuo tapped in for the early lead.
The two teams traded chances through the rest of the half, but neither side would break through as Urawa headed into the break 1-0 up.
Things would change early in the second half, however, when Jeonbuk were awarded a penalty, which Paik Seung-ho converted to bring the match level.
Urawa had several chances to win the match within 90 minutes, especially in the waning moments. A host of chances went begging in stoppage time alone, including a Takahiro Akimoto header, a Kasper Junker shot off the post, and a few efforts at goal from Ataru Esaka — one of which was cleared off the line.
Extra time ticked on with neither side able to break through until the 116th minute when the Korean club took a late lead through Han Kyo-won, who poked a near-post cross into the roof of the net.
Desperate for an equalizer, the Reds threw all their men forward and in the final minute of extra-time they got their goal. Another strong header by Akimoto was denied by a good save, but Kasper Junker was first to the rebound and buried it into the back of the net, sending the crowd at Saitama Stadium 2002 wild.
Penalty kicks would determine who would represent the East Region in the Asian final and Urawa put their trust in goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. He delivered from the start, denying Jeonbuk’s first attempt from the spot and then their second too.
Alexander Scholz and Junker, by contrast, hit the net in those first two frames.
After Jeonbuk made their third penalty, Moberg would miss, but Jeonbuk’s fourth spot kick clipped the post and went wide.
With a 2-1 lead on penalties in the fourth round, Urawa would win if Esaka could make his spot kick.
More than 20,000 Urawa fans watched with bated breath and Esaka’s teammates stood arm in arm as he stood over the ball. He stepped to it, sent the goalkeeper the wrong way, and buried it in the back of the net, setting off a mass of red celebrating a trip to the Champions League final.
The AFC Champions League final will be played over two legs on February 19 and 26, 2023. The West Region knockout stages will be played in early February, with the prevailing team meeting Urawa for the Asian championship as the Reds try to conquer the continent for the first time since 2017.