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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007

Nagai leads Reds to ACL title

Urawa defeats Sepahan to capture continental crown


Staff writer

SAITAMA — Urawa Reds were crowned kings of Asia after a comfortable 2-0 win over Iran's Sepahan in the second leg of their AFC Champions League final on Wednesday evening.

News photo
Urawa forward Yuichiro Nagai (left) and his teammate Washington celebrate after Nagai's first half goal in the second leg of the AFC Champions League final Wednesday at Saitama Stadium. Urawa won 2-0. KYODO PHOTO

A brilliant first-half strike from forward Yuichiro Nagai and a second-half header from Yuki Abe secured a 3-1 aggregate victory as the reigning J. League champions became the first Japanese team to win the ACL since the tournament was revamped in 2002.

"I just focused on scoring today," said Nagai. "This is an achievement that was made not only by our efforts but the great support from the fans.

"The ACL was a tough tournament. Our fans came to cheer for us even if it was an away game. We wanted to give them some just reward."

In front of nearly 60,000 supporters at Saitama Stadium, Keita Suzuki, deputizing for captain Nobuhisa Yamada, whose injury ruled him out of both legs of the final, lifted the trophy as delirium descended upon the arena.

The Saitama giants are the first team from Japan to win a continental title since Shimizu S-Pulse won the Asian Cup Winner's Cup in 2000. Jubilo Iwata claimed the Asian Club Championship, the precursor to the ACL, in 1999.

In recent years, Japanese clubs had treated the competition with a certain disdain, pointing to poor organization, facilities and officiating.

The vision of Mitsunori Fujiguchi of making Urawa the acknowledged superpower of the Asian game bucked this trend. The club president knew that to do realize this, new coach Holger Osieck had to bring the ACL title to Saitama. The German coach delivered at the first time of asking.

The ACL title is the first of what could be a four-trophy haul for Osieck's men. The Reds stand five points clear of Gamba Osaka in the J. League with three games left, starting with S-Pulse on Sunday.

Then there is the Club World Cup. The newly crowned Asian club champions have the chance of becoming world club champions at the December tournament. Soon also begins the defense of their Emperor's Cup. There's no rest for the wickedly successful.

The Reds went into Wednesday's game with the tie balanced, albeit precariously, in their favor at 1-1, the away goal by Robson Ponte in Esfahan, Iran, last week a precious commodity. It meant a 0-0 draw would be good enough to claim the title.

There was slightly tentative edge to the early exchanges, both teams alert to the potential devastation wrought to best-laid plans if an early goal was conceded.

Slowly and surely, though, the hosts calmed down and backed by the cacophonous roar of the home fans began to enjoy the better of things.

Central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, back after missing the first leg with a thigh strain, was the first to go close when he met a Ponte free-kick from the left with a well-directed header, but 'keeper Abbas Mohammadi leaped superbly to tip over.

Unfortunately for Mohammadi, the Reds were utterly ruthless in execution of their second chance. Jaba Mujiri fluffed a clearance of Ponte's through ball to Nagai, and the Urawa striker strode forward to crash in an unstoppable rising shot. 1-0 Reds.

"Nagai has proved what he is able to do," said Osieck. "He has scored important goals for us throughout the season and he did a very good job for the team throughout the season."

Despite Nagai's nerve-settler, an edginess permeating the Reds team caused the odd stray pass and mis-kick from whom you would expect better: Ponte's laser-like precision passing deserted him on occasion, while a usually unflappable Reds rearguard defended in pell-mell fashion as Sepahan laid siege to their goal at the end of the half.

For all the technically proficient and pretty passing, though, the Iranians were limited to shooting from distance. Their best chance of the half fell to Abdul Wahab just before the half-hour mark, but the midfielder pulled his low 25-meter shot just past the upright.

The Reds strode out for the second half knowing there could be no repeat of their second-half capitulation in the first leg. Sepahan poured forward in the early stages, but the alertness of 'keeper Ryota Tsuzuki and a well-oiled offside trap kept the visitors vexed.

Washington, conspicuously quiet in the first period, was now seeing a little more of the ball, although this was to frustration of Ponte on one occasion when the mercurial Brazilian striker chose to hog the ball and shoot when his compatriot was begging to be released on the edge of the area.

Washington, playing without his protective mask of recent weeks, nearly redeemed himself for his supreme act of greediness minutes later when he had a point-blank shot brilliantly saved by Mohammadi.

The Sepahan 'keeper had done his fair share in frustrating Urawa's hopes of adding a second, but his resistance was finally worn down on 71 minutes. This time a selfless act from Washington, a headed knockdown to Nagai invited a shot that was parried by Mohammadi but only into the air, where the incoming Abe nodded the floating ball into the net.

The Iranians still had 20 minutes to claw back the two goals that would give them victory courtesy of the away-goal rule, but the Reds were not going to throw this one away.

A consolation prize for the losers is they had already qualified for the Club World Cup playoff against New Zealand side Waitakere United before the match, due to a FIFA rule forbidding two Japanese teams taking part in the competition.

The Reds will be heading into the competition proper, though, as the deserved champions of Asia.



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