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Urawa and Al-Hilal win through to AFC Champions League final

Urawa’s Yuki Abe celebrates AFC Champions League progress earlier this season. Photo: PA

WHILE most of the attention focuses on the UEFA Champions League, the other continental competitions have been reaching a crucial stage in their 2017 campaigns.

This week, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League final’s participants were decided: Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia and Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds.

Al-Hilal are arguably Asia’s top club at the moment and are in first place in football database’s rankings. They’re unbeaten in the Saudi Arabian league at the moment and now they’ve reached their sixth AFC Champions League final.

Al-Hilal cruised to the final in a 2-2 draw against Persepolis of Iran. They had won the first leg of the semi-final 4-0 with Syrian forward Omar Khribin scoring a hat-trick. The 23 year-old, who has scored nine goals in the competition has also been a pivotal figure in Syria’s march to the 2018 World Cup finals.

The most successful club in Saudi Arabia, with 14 league titles, eight King Cups and 13 Crown Prince Cups to their name, Al-Hilal are from Riyadh.

They won through to the final of the AFC Champions League without losing a single match. In the early stage, they finished first in a group that included their semi-finals opponents, Persepolis, Qatar’s Al-Rayyan and Al-Wahda of the United Arab Emirates.

In the last 16, Al-Hilal beat Iranian side Esteghlal Khuzestan home and away by 2-1. They then beat 2016 runners-up Al-Ain of the UAE in the quarter-finals before their semi-final against Persepolis.

Urawa Reds last won the AFC Champions League in 2007 and they are the first Japanese side to reach the final since 2008 when Gamba Osaka won the competition. Ironically, their success this season comes at a time when they’re not faring so well in the J-League, where they are currently just above mid-table. They’ve also had a change of managers this season, with the Serbian Mihailo Petrovic sacked in July and replaced by Takafumi Hori.

Like Al-Hilal, Urawa had to overcome a team they had played in the group phase in the semi-finals, the highly-fancied Shanghai SIPG. The Two teams finished on 12 points in the group that also featured FC Seoul of South Korea and Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers.

Urawa showed great character in coming back from a two-goal first leg defeat in the last 16 against another South Korean side, Jeju United, winning 3-0 in Saitama after extra time. This set them up for an all-Japanese tie with Kawasaki Frontale, with Urawa losing 3-1 in the first leg and producing another comeback to secure a 4-1 victory in the second meeting. Their win in the semi-final was by the narrowest of margins, a 1-0 second leg success, thanks to a goal from Brazilian Rafael Silva, after a 1-1 draw in Shanghai.

Urawa were delighted with their victory. Club captain Yuki Abe, told the media: “Our priority was not to concede and from there, we wanted to be courageous and score ourselves. 1-0 was enough – it’s a great feeling.” Urawa’s success is a boost for the J-League, which has seen its position in the region challenged by the rise of the Chinese Super League. Shanghai SIPG have been among the most aggressive Chinese clubs in the transfer market and included Brazilians Hulk and Oscar in their line-up. They are managed by former Chelsea coach Andre Villas-Boas.

The two-legged final will be played on November 18 and 25.

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