- Urawa Red Diamonds seeking Asian crown on Saturday at Al Hilal’s expense
- Yuki Abe one of two survivors from their memorable 2007 continental win
- Veteran midfielder says home advantage at Saitama could be crucial
Urawa Red Diamonds enter Saturday's 2017 AFC Champions League final second leg against Al Hilal aiming to make history of their own by becoming the first Japanese club - and only the fourth in Asia - to lift the continental crown for a second time.
The J.League giants tasted maiden success in 2007 when they remained undefeated enroute to the title. A decade on, Urawa are again in the tournament final and while the entire team will spare nothing to recapture the continental laurels and thus earn the right to represent Asia in another FIFA Club World Cup, it is captain Yuki Abe who is looking forward to the opportunity with particular relish.
"Our motivation is clear: we will be able to return to the Club World Cup if we win the AFC Champions League again," said the 36-year-old defensive midfielder, one of just two players who figured in their all-conquering campaign and the Club World Cup ten years ago. "The team can make good progress if they have the opportunity to play against the world's best teams [in the Club World Cup]. Now, however, our task is to fight and win the final against Al Hilal."
Of course, the vastly experienced player is all too aware of their rivals’ qualities heading into the tournament decider. Al Hilal are the only team to have remained undefeated in the campaign. Indeed, they dominated possession in the first leg at home carving out numerous goalscoring opportunities only to be held to a 1-1 draw, a result which leaves the final wide open.
"They [Al Hilal] have lost few matches in their domestic league and they are still undefeated in the Champions League," Abe said. "They have many good players and they are a very aggressive team. Besides, their coach Ramon Diaz has knowledge of J.League teams considering that he had played for Yokohama Marinos."
*Saitama's special atmosphere *Despite Hilal’s record, Abe maintains that Urawa’s strong home record will give them a mental edge heading into the decider. In 2007, Urawa remained undefeated at the Saitama Stadium as they clinched their maiden Asian title, while they have also maintained an unblemished home record this campaign by winning all six games.
"The atmosphere in Saitama was unbelievable when we won the 2007 edition," reflected Abe, who scored a crucial goal against Iran’s Sepahan in the final as they won the title. "I remember the goal I scored. Of course, I was very happy at that time. But now we won't sit on our laurels so I try not to look back on the old days."
The away draw and goal in the first leg provides Urawa with a slight advantage - Takafumi Hori's side can claim aggregate victory with a goalless draw at home in the return. Having fought so hard to grab a point in a game Al Hilal largely dominated, Abe is eager to show improved performances in front of their home supporters.
"To be honest, we had a difficult time in the first leg,” he said. “It was an away game that I found hard. But we will put in better performances when we play at home. We will not repeat the past mistakes. In this regard, we are improving game after game.
"This season there were managerial switches at our club but, I feel that under our new coach Hori, we have gradually been getting stronger as a team."