Analysis: Advantage Al Hilal, but Urawa remain in the tie
Kuala Lumpur: Al Hilal head to Saitama Stadium on November 24 with a one-goal advantage after Saturday's 1-0 victory over Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the final, but will they rue missed chances?
A 1-0 first-leg win, and importantly no away goals conceded, can be seen as a positive for Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal, who in their previous final appearances drew (2017) and lost (2014) the first legs.
However, Urawa, too, may see the result as somewhat satisfactory. Missing their first choice goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa through a one-match suspension, and on the back foot for most of the tie, a single goal deficit with a trip to their home fortress to come may be deemed acceptable.
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The snake strikes
Al Hilal came out the blocks on the front foot as they looked to take full advantage of home support and in Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo had the perfect outlet for their attack.
Known as "The Snake" by the Hilal fans, the 28-year-old was in venomous form down Urawa's right flank giving Takahiro Sekine and Takuya Iwanami a torrid time.
Carrillo created more chances (4) than any player on the pitch as well as completing more dribbles (4), but his defining moment came on the hour mark, when he was first onto Mohammed Al Burayk's right-wing cross to header home.
With leading scorer Bafetimbi Gomis kept relatively quiet by the Urawa backline and Sebastian Giovinco having an off-night, Carrillo stood out among Al Hilal's vaunted foreign attack.
Fukushima's tale of two halves
All eyes were on the man between the posts for Urawa as Haruki Fukushima pulled on the gloves for the Reds for the first time in the AFC Champions League, replacing the suspended Nishikawa.
The 26-year-old backup 'keeper has seen little first-team action for his side on the domestic front, let alone the grandest stage of the Continental club game, but, nevertheless, enjoyed a first half in Riyadh to remember.
Waves upon waves of blue-shirt attacks rained down upon Fukushima's goal but the custodian stood tall with a particularly stunning save to deny Carrillo from a corner on 33 minutes, before another impressive block to keep out Giovinco four minutes later.
Despite his first-half heroics, the next encounter between Carrillo and Fukushima left the former celebrating, as the goalkeeper misjudged Al Burayk's delivery from the right to present the Peruvian an easy finish.
Nevertheless, the Urawa number 2 can be proud of his performance that kept the scoreline to just a single goal deficit and gives Urawa a platform to build on at Saitama when Nishikawa returns to his post.
Will Al Hilal's prolificacy cost them again?
In both the 2014 and 2017 AFC Champions League finals, Al Hilal were on top in the home ties. And yet for all their attacking verve and dominance, their tally from the pair of matches is a single goal, and, ultimately, runners-up medals.
It was a similar story on Saturday. Nearly 70 percent of possession, more than triple the number of passes and 22 shots to two; it was practically one-way traffic at King Saud University Stadium. And yet the Continental giants have just one goal to take with them to Japan.
Yes, Fukushima's performance played a big part, as did Urawa's neutralising of Gomis, but Al Hilal still carved out several gilt-edged chances, with Giovinco in particular guilty of passing up on some clear-cut opportunities.
Ali Al Bulayhi also missed from close range, while Salem Al Dawsari, who had a goal disallowed for offside, and Nawaf Al Abed had efforts off target as the match drew to a close.
With five of the last six AFC Champions League finals being decided by a margin of, at most, a single goal, time will tell how crucial this failure to turn dominance into goals will be.
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