Urawa begin AFC Champions League defense with must-win play-off round

Urawa begin AFC Champions League defense with must-win play-off round

It was only three months ago that Urawa Reds were lifting the AFC Champions League trophy aloft, celebrating their third Asian crown. Now, the continental champions are back at as 2023-24 competition kicks off for the Reds with a play-off round clash against Hong Kong’s Lee Man on Tuesday.

The Reds enter the match not only as defending champions, but as three-time winners of the tournament and making their ninth appearance in the Asian championship. That is a massive difference to Lee Man, who played their first-ever Champions League match last week in a 5-1 preliminary round victory over Indonesia’s Bali United.

The gap in experience will give Urawa confidence, but so will their play of late. They’ve taken results from 12 of their last 14 matches in the Meiji Yasuda J1 League, including a win over the weekend against third place Nagoya Grampus, and feature the best defense in the Japanese top flight.

The centerback pairing of Alexander Scholz and Marius Høibraten shined in Urawa’s run to the AFC Champions League crown and has carried over that form over the summer. Now they are back in continental competition and there’s no reason to believe they can’t be the foundation for more Reds success in Asia.

Urawa will have one final advantage - the Reds faithful.

The play-off round is a single knockout match and Urawa have been fortunate to get the match at Saitama Stadium 2002, where they will have the home crowd behind them. The Reds ran through the knockout stages of last season’s Champions League at home, outsourcing their opponents by a combined score of 12-2, and they will rely on their fans to help them against Lee Man.

It should be a scene at Saitama Stadium 2002. The AFC Champions League is back, and it returns with the defending champions Urawa Reds as they aim to join Yokohama F·Marinos, Kawasaki Frontale and Ventforet Kofu in the group stage.