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Urawa Reds, Al-Hilal Renew Rivalry in Asian Champions League Final

Reigning champion Al-Hilal and the Urawa Reds, two-time tournament winners, will meet for the third time in the last six years to crown the ACL winner.

The Urawa Reds have won the Asian Champions League twice (2007, 2017), and the Saitama-based J.League soccer club is back in the tournament final again.

Saudi club Al-Hilal, which has won a record four ACL titles, will vie for its fifth continental crown against the J.League's Reds. The first leg of the home-and-away final kicks off in Riyadh on Saturday night, April 29 (Sunday, 2:30 AM JST).

In the second leg, Urawa will play host to reigning ACL champion Al-Hilal on Saturday, May 6 at 6 PM at Saitama Stadium.

The teams are quite familiar with one another in this setting. A quick reminder: The Reds defeated Al-Hilal in the 2017 final, and their Saudi opponent conquered Urawa in 2019, winning 1-0 at home and 2-0 in Saitama.

Looking ahead to their showdown to determine the 2022 Asian Champions League winner (the tournament season started last year), Al-Hilal manager Ramon Diaz said strong competition will be on display.

"We know that it’s going to be a difficult game but that is what you expect when you reach a final," the 63-year-old Diaz said, according to The Associated Press.

The Argentine boss added, "We know what we have to do and we also know that this is the first half and then we go to Japan."

Al Hilal's Odion Ighalo (left) and Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger compete in a 2022 Club World Cup semifinal in Abu Dhabi. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Al-Hilal hammered Qatari foe Al-Duhail 7-0 in the semifinals on February 26 to book a spot in the final against Urawa. Nigerian striker Odion Ighalo, a former English Premier League player, had four goals in the rout.

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Dramatic Victory for Urawa Reds

In Saitama, in the other semifinal, the Reds defeated South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 3-1 in a penalty shootout on August 25, 2022, with Ataru Esaka scoring the winning penalty, to earn a trip to the final. (Watch video highlights of the game's dramatic conclusion.)

Spaniard Ricardo Rodriguez left his Urawa management post at the end of the 2022 J.League season. His Polish replacement, Maciej Skorza, 51, took over as new boss in 2023.

The Reds are off to a strong start in the J.League season, which began in February. Through games of April 23, Urawa (five wins, two draws, two defeats) is fourth in the standings, two points behind league-leading Vissel Kobe. Most of the season will be played after the ACL final.

Urawa Reds right back Hiroki Sakai participates in a team workout on April 28 in Riyadh. (KYODO)

Which is why Skorza's current ambitions are focused on a bigger target: continental bragging rights.

"From my first working day in Urawa I have been thinking about the final," Skorza said recently, according to Agence France-Presse. "We were working very hard for this moment, to be ready for the challenge, to be ready for this very difficult game."

Last Time Out for Both Teams

In the Reds' most recent match, they played to a 1-1 draw against Kawasaki Frontale on April 23.

On the same day, Al-Hilal competed in Saudi Arabia's King's Cup semifinal, winning 1-0 in extra time.

Diaz said he wasn't concerned about fatigue affecting his players.

"We have enough time to recover, six days before the final against Urawa," Diaz was quoted as saying by AFP. 

The Asian Champions League, organized by the sport's continental governing body (Asian Football Confederation), has been held since 1967.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.


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