- Urawa Red Diamonds travel to Guangzhou Evergrande for semi-final second leg
- J.League giants have a two-goal advantage
- Striker Shinzo Koroki eyeing third Asian title with Urawa
If their title-winning campaign in the 2017 AFC Champions League is anything to go by, it seems Urawa Red Diamonds look set to emulate their past heroics and recapture the Asian title this year.
Two years ago, the J.League side were locked with Chinese Super League giants Shanghai SIPG in the semi-final stage. Having played out a 1-1 draw away at Shanghai, Urawa won 1-0 at home to progress to the final where they then defeated Al Hilal to claim a second continental title.
Once again they are pitted against a C-League outfit in the same stage: two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande. This time around, Tsuyoshi Otsuki’s side got off to a better start in the first leg than in 2017, winning 2-0 at home to head into Wednesday’s return match with a valuable two-goal advantage.
With Urawa looking on course to advance, however, ace-striker Shinzo Koroki is warning against any complacency as he told FIFA.com.
“We should remain aware that Guangzhou are a very good team as everyone knows,” said the 33-year-old, who has racked up seven goals in the continental campaign. “They have very good foreign players as well as good Chinese players. The second leg will be a very difficult game. We need to be very careful.”
Both sides enter this year’s campaign aiming to become the first Asian team to lift the trophy for a record third time, both having twice prevailed on the Asian scene. For Koroki, though, the focus for now is entirely on Guangzhou.
“Of course I want to become a history-maker [by winning our third title in this year’s AFC Champions League],” he said. “This is the top club competition and the champions will go to the FIFA Club World Cup. It is a big honour for any team. But at the moment, we have to concentrate on the next match.”
Koroki tasted his first Asian title with Urawa in 2017, during which they swept past a series of pre-tournament favourites to emerge the winners. For him, the 2017 success remains an inspiration from which they can draw upon.
“I think the 2017 campaign was harder for us because the majority of the team had less AFC Champions League experience,” he explained. “Now we have many players who featured in that campaign and they know what the Asian competition is and what they need to do in each game.”
Fox in the box
Standing at 175 cm tall, Koroki is known for his agility and pace. He can shrug off his marker with quick turns or cut into area from nowhere to score in spectacular fashion.
Notably, he was twice on target over two legs as his side eliminated Shanghai in the quarter-finals of this year’s campaign. His seven-goal tally sees him sit in second place in the tournament’s goalscoring chart, two goals shy of joint-leaders Bafetimbi Gomis (Al Hilal) and Leonardo (Al Wahda).
“I think I am very much a penalty box striker,” said Koroki. “Many strikers often have their jobs done inside the area. But there are so many great players who are so good [at finishing] in the penalty box so I don’t think I am special.”
Urawa have so far struggled on the domestic front, languishing in 12th in the 18-team standings. While their hopes of a J.League title have all but faded away, the AFC Champions League still presents an opportunity to bring home major silverware this season.
“We want to win everything in front of us,” he said. “But the AFC Champions League title is closest to us. It is the Club World Cup qualifying campaign in Asia, so we will give everything to win it this time around.”