Scott McIntyre reckons the Urawa Red Diamonds’ luck will finally run out when they meet Al Hilal in next months AFC Champions League final.
The day after Al Hilal became the first team to confirm their place in the final of the 2017 AFC Champions League, Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds joined them but the brutal, scrappy, nature of their 2-1 aggregate win over Shanghai SIPG did little to dispel the belief that this is the Saudi side’s title to lose.
Midway through the first half of their clash in Saitama, the Shanghai forward Hulk was fouled – not for the first nor last time on the evening – and in getting up to protest to the referee he lamented, ‘hey, come on, this is football…this is a football game.’
In truth he was only partly correct as this error-strewn clash was more akin to a birthday party where a load of guests had turned up only to find there was hardly any food or drink and the presents were made of cheap plastic.
There were almost as many misplaced passes as there were completed ones, a stream of stoppages fractured any other rhythm that may have existed and after Urawa had grabbed an early lead they were content to abort any sustained attempt at creativity thereafter only to be met by a woeful visiting team that struggled to make any sort of headway against their deeply packed defensive line.
Aside from the goal the loudest eruption of noise from the admittedly colourful and loud Saitama crowd came late on as Hulk refused to play the ball back to Urawa following a stoppage in play. So dire did things become that quite a number of the decent away support took to checking their phones at the same time as chanting and clapping together those inflatable batons that have become fashionable at football grounds across Asia.
As someone who observes Japanese football closely it’s also somewhat bemusing to ponder the fact that a club which hasn’t been anywhere near the best half a dozen or so domestically this year now stands on the verge of being crowned Asian champions.
Even more so that neither of this pair were actually even champions of anything of consequence last year (setting aside Urawa’s league cup win and second stage league ‘title’) yet find themselves competing in the last four of the ‘champions’ league.
On the surface of things, Reds have actually got worse since the mid-season sacking of the long-serving manager Mihailo Petrovic under whom they won five of their eight ACL matches this year compared to two of four (and one only due to the epic Kawasaki implosion in the quarters) under the new coach Takafumi Hori.
The shift in formation to a 4-1-4-1 has resulted in players being pigeonholed into unfamiliar roles with central defenders playing at both left and right fullback (Tomoaki Makino & Wataru Endo), a defensive midfielder (Yuki Abe) in the centre of defense, attacking midfielders (Rafael Silva & Yuki Muto) stuck in wide midfield roles and the one of the nation’s best number tens (Yosuke Kashiwagi) reduced to a deeper slot as a hybrid six-eight.
In one sense you can credit the new coach, Hori, in some way for still managing to see the team maintain a semblance of organisation but the truth is if not for a quarterfinal, second leg, red card and the resulting bizarre tactical adjustments from Kawasaki, Reds would never have reached the semis.
That they will now host the second leg of the final is also as much down to a staggeringly inept display from a Shanghai side that have been a powerhouse domestically this year, pushing Guangzhou all the way for the league title that they now appear certain to concede.
Wu Lei, who has been a creative and goalscoring tour de force in the CSL, was almost invisible here as were the quartet of big-name foreign stars that the awkwardly named SIPG needed to rise to the moment if they were to progress.
The mercurial Oscar was reduced to being a shoveler of tame crosses with the deepest of the jagged Urawa defensive lines time and again simply hacking those away rather than trying to control them and maintain possession.
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Elkeson hardly had the service he needed to thrive but neither did he drop and look for it while the deep-lying playmaker Odil Ahmedov found his passing range unusually inaccurate and the biggest star of the lot was more bulk than Hulk as he laboured to heave his increased frame either around or past the Reds defence with some of the Brazilian’s touches inexplicably poor.
All of that was in stark contrast to the manner in which the impressive Saudi champions Al Hilal saw off Persepolis 6-2 on aggregate in the other semi which means they enter the final without having lost a single one of their 12 matches along the way.
Contrast that with an Urawa side that have lost a quarter of the matches they’ve played and which outside of set-piece situations offer no great attacking threat and the free-wheeling Saudi side could well be set to put on an attacking master class come the final in four weeks time.
Whilst their defence is far from stable, going forward there’s no question that Al Hilal have been the most impressive outfit in Asia this year and for the sake of the neutrals let’s hope they aren’t tamed by the nature of the occasion in a fascinating final that sees their Argentine coach, Ramon Diaz, returning to the land where he finished his playing days looking to claim one of the biggest titles of his coaching career.