Urawa Red Diamonds take aim at Al Hilal in ACL final first leg
Urawa Red Diamonds will hope to take a huge stride towards ending their 10-year continental title drought when Takafumi Hori's side prepare to face off against Al Hilal in the first leg of their AFC Champions League (ACL) final in Riyadh on Saturday evening.
Urawa became the first Japanese side to win the competition since the beginning of the ACL era in 2002, and following in the footsteps of Jubilo Iwata in becoming only the second J-League side to be crowned Asia's champion club.
Much has changed for Urawa since they defeated Iran's Sepahan in 2007. Only former Leicester City man Yuki Abe and the rarely used Tadaaki Hirakawa remain a decade on for a Reds' side who have impressed with their cohesion and unity along a difficult road to the final.
It is that togetherness that has Al Hilal and Saudi Arabia legend Sami Al Jaber believing the Japanese side will present a major hurdle to Ramon Diaz and the Riyadh-based club over the next two weekends.
"Urawa are compact as a team. They play more as a team than someone like Shanghai or Guangzhou," said Al Jaber, who captained Al Hilal when they won the second of their two Asian Club Championship crowns in 2000.
"The Chinese teams have signed big players and those players -- especially with Shanghai -- are very important. But Urawa are a team. They remind me of Barcelona because it's not about one star player, it's about the team and that makes them dangerous."
Urawa go into the final having seen off Shanghai SIPG in the semifinals after defeating compatriots Kawasaki Frontale in the last eight of the competition and boasting a remarkable record at home in the knockout phase.
Having never led going into the return fixture at Saitama Stadium in the last three rounds, Urawa have won on home soil each time having twice -- against Jeju United and Kawasaki -- overturned first-leg deficits.
That record of resilience will face a huge test against an Al Hilal side who have yet to taste defeat in this season's competition. They boast the striking talents of Syria's Omar Khrbin, the joint-top scorer with nine goals in 12 games.
Diaz has fashioned a side who have remained defensively solid while bristling with attacking flair. Salman Al Faraj, Nawaf Al Abed and Salem Al Dawsari are as important to Al Hilal as they were for Saudi Arabia during their successful World Cup qualifying campaign.
South American duo Nicolas Milesi and Carlos Eduardo bring invention, work rate and physical presence to the midfield. The team's on-field chemistry has Al Jaber confident his former club can claim the crown after losing out to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.
"This is the time for Al Hilal to win the title," the four-time World Cup veteran said. "I think Al Hilal are the strongest team in Asia and I think they're stronger than when they reached the final in 2014.
"They're more technical and better tactically. The players are more confident, too. There are eight players in the team who were in the Saudi national team that qualified for the World Cup and those players will be stronger and more professional because of that experience. They have gone to a higher level."
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch