Urawa claim title to finish Asian Champions League odyssey
Urawa Red Diamonds coach Maciej Skorza said the wait was worth it after the Japanese side won the Asian Champions League on Saturday -- almost nine months after reaching the final.
Urawa lifted the trophy for a third time after beating Saudi Arabia's defending champions Al Hilal 1-0 at home in the second leg of the final, giving them a 2-1 aggregate win one week after drawing the opener 1-1 in Riyadh.
The final marked the end of a 2022 competition that began in March last year and was delayed by the winter World Cup in Qatar and travel complications arising from the pandemic.
Urawa beat South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors in the semi-finals in August last year but Skorza -- who only arrived at the club in January -- was happy to finally finish the job.
"From the beginning of our preparation at our training camp, I was thinking about it and trying to prepare the team for this very difficult stage," said the Pole.
"It's just amazing -- it's difficult to find a way to describe this feeling."
An own goal by Al Hilal's Andre Carrillo early in the second half made the difference in front of almost 55,000 fans in Saitama, north of Tokyo.
Al Hilal dominated possession in the first half but Urawa held firm and forced the lead when Marius Hoibraten's 48th-minute header forced Carrillo into a mistake amid strong winds.
The final whistle sparked wild celebrations among a crowd known for being Japan's most boisterous supporters.
Urawa captain Hiroki Sakai, who was named player of the tournament, said the fans had created "a special atmosphere" and urged his team-mates to give them more to celebrate in the months to come.
"Whether they continue to support us is all up to us," said the defender.
"We still have league and cup games to come and if we keep winning then they will support us, but we can't take them for granted."
- Busy schedule -
Al Hilal were looking to win a record fifth continental title and a third in four seasons.
The Saudi side were without injured captain Salman Al Faraj and suspended star winger Salem Al Dawsari, who was sent off late in the first leg for kicking out at Urawa's Ken Iwao.
Coach Ramon Diaz refused to blame his team's busy schedule, which saw them lose 5-3 to Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final in February.
"This is normal when you play for Al Hilal," said the Argentine, whose club have been linked with a multi-million dollar move for Lionel Messi.
"It was a tough game and we have played many tough games in a short space of time, but this is our destiny. We can't do anything about it."
The two teams were meeting in the final of Asia's premier club competition for the third time in six years. Urawa won in 2017 but Al Hilal came out on top two years later.
The Saudis had early chances through Odion Ighalo and Michael but Urawa's Shinzo Koroki, who scored his team's goal in the first leg, hit the crossbar with a flying volley midway through the first half.
Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa kept his team in the game and the home team defended with calm assurance once they took the lead in the second half.
"As a defender you're trying to keep a clean sheet -- if you keep a clean sheet, you won't lose," said Sakai.
"I believed that my team-mates would score, and after we got the goal, all I had to do was do my job."