Saitama: Urawa Red Diamonds managed to produce the goods once more in front of home support as Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over Beijing FC saw the two-time AFC Champions League winners progress to the last 16 as Group G runners-up.
Despite sitting above Beijing on goal difference, the J.League side went into the game in a perilous situation: a goalless draw would have seen them advance, while a score draw or defeat and they would be eliminated, but as so often in the past, Saitama Stadium proved their inspiration.
It must have been worrying for the home fans when Urawa captain and creator-in-chief Yosuki Kashiwagi was withdrawn with an injury after just 13 minutes, but his replacement proved to be the difference in the match.
Just over 20 minutes later, Kazuki Nagasawa – who was part of the 2017 AFC Champions League-winning team – collected the ball just outside the box, manoeuvred into the area and fired his side in front with his first-ever goal in the competition.
The midfielder caused havoc among the visiting defence once more seven minutes later, driving past Beijing captain Yu Dabao from the left before slipping the ball to Yuki Muto to put the hosts two up and firmly in command.
Tuesday’s game was only the second Nagasawa had not started in the group stage – the first of which he was unavailable for selection – and going by his performance, Urawa coach Oswaldo de Oliveira is unlikely to leave him on the bench in the next round against Ulsan Hyundai.
A big-money signing from Spanish side Villarreal in early 2018, Cedric Bakambu has been a huge success domestically, scoring almost a goal a game in the Chinese Super League, but the Congolese striker has not had the same joy on the Continent.
The 28-year-old netted a hat-trick on Matchday Three against Buriram United, but they have proved his only goals in the group stage and he has been unable to kick on since then. At Saitama Stadium, he again drew a blank.
On Tuesday, the striker had more touches (57) than in any of his previous games as Beijing enjoyed two-thirds of possession, while he also had more attempts on goal (5) than in any of his five other games in the competition.
Bakambu should have done better with a close-range header from a corner with the score a 0-0 then minutes later when he raced clear on goal only to be denied by goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. Second-half efforts were well off target as Beijing exited without Bakambu showing his true class in his maiden AC Champions League/.
As has so often been the case in the past, Saitama Stadium was where Urawa were able to pull themselves out of a spot of bother and secure a place in the next round.
In 2017, the J.League side lost by two-goal margins away from home in the last 16 and quarter-finals against Jeju United and Kawasaki Frontale respectively, before returning to Saitama to pull of memorable comebacks.
Away draws in the semi-finals to Shanghai SIPG and the final against Al Hilal were then followed with slender 1-0 wins at home as they claimed the title for the second time.
Jeonbuk’s win at Saitama on Matchday Three was perhaps proof the venue is no fortress but, once again, when it mattered most Urawa produced the goods in front of their own fans as their quest for an unprecedented third AFC Champions League title continued.
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