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Kuala Lumpur: 10 years since appearing in their first and only AFC Champions League final, Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds return to the main event looking to add to their 2007 continental victory.

With the first leg of the final against Al Hilal to take place in Riyadh on Saturday, the-AFC.com looks back at how the tournament’s top scorers have progressed to the title showdown for the second time in their history.


Defensive frailty becomes defensive stability


How Urawa (dark blue) lined up away at Shanghai SIPG in the semi-final

Urawa may be the competition’s leading scorers on 28 goals but it was a pair of strong defensive performances that helped them past another free-scoring team – Shanghai SIPG – over two legs in the semi-finals, having previously conceded six times in four knockout stage games.

Away in China in the first leg, the attack-minded full-back Tomoaki Makino was given the task of man-marking Hulk and, although the Brazilian frontman netted with an excellent free-kick, he was kept largely quiet as Makino stuck by his side throughout the night.

Tomoaki Makino’s heatmap in a strong defensive display away at Shanghai SIPG.

On the other side in the second leg, an industrious performance from right-back Wataru Endo saw the Japan international win the joint-highest number of duels (14) on the pitch and make the most interceptions (5) in a performance that epitomised Urawa’s battling spirit and showcased their new found defensive solidity when it mattered most.

Recent line-ups have seen coach Takafumi Hori opt for a four-man defence, with the experienced captain Yuki Abe and Brazilian Mauricio Antonio occupying the central positions, as Urawa have improved on a backline that had conceded five goals over two away games in the Round of 16 and quarter-finals.


Dominant midfield

In front of the back four, Takuya Aoki has operated as the anchor in a five-man midfield in Urawa’s past three games with the defence-minded Kazuki Nagasawa and playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi, who has five assists to his name, ahead of him.

Both Kashiwagi and Nagasawa were instrumental in the success against Shanghai, with the former scoring Urawa’s vital goal in the first leg and the latter winning 87.5 percent of the duels he contested in the second leg to help keep the Chinese side’s formidable attack quiet.

Urawa’s (dark blue) Rafael Silva (8) and Yuki Muto (9) in advanced average positions away at Shanghai SIPG.

Seven-goal leading scorer Rafael Silva and Yuki Muto, who has two goals to his name, operate wide on the right and left respectively, and will make sure Al Hilal’s attacking full-backs Yasir Al Shahrani and Mohammed Al Burayk have plenty to think when it comes to their defensive duties.

As is so often the case with Japanese sides, Urawa’s game plan is generally based around dictating the play, with their average possession of just over 58 percent bettered only by compatriots Gamba Osaka – who exited in the first round – and Kawasaki Frontale, while their passing accuracy of just under 84 percent is second only to Kawasaki.


Goals aplenty

A tournament-leading 28 goals – one every 38.6 minutes – ensures Urawa undoubtedly provide value for money while 13 different players have got on the scoresheet over just 12 matches, in comparison to Al Hilal’s eight.

Amazingly, all 28 of their goals have come from inside the penalty area, with Brazilian Silva – who scored the decisive goal against Shanghai in the second leg of the semi-final – proving the biggest threat, having scored his seven goals from just 11 shots.

Shinzo Koroki will likely lead the frontline against Al Hilal and has four goals to his name, including the opening goals against Jeju United and Kawasaki in the second legs of the Round of 16 and quarter-finals, as Urawa fought back from first-leg deficits to advance.

There are also plenty of options from the bench with the experienced Tadanari Lee having weighed in with four goals and Slovenian Zlatan Ljubijankic two, most notably the second in the 4-1 victory over Kawasaki that sparked arguably the most memorable comeback seen in this year’s competition.

Photos: Lagardère Sports

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