Sepahan were held to a 1-1 draw by Urawa Red Diamonds in the first leg of the AFC Champions League final at Foolad Shahr Stadium in Esfahan on Wednesday. The Iranian Hazfi Cup holders will now face an uphill battle against the J-League champions in Saitama next Wednesday.
Urawa's Robson Ponte drew first blood with a clinical finish on the stroke of half time, before Mahmoud Karimi fired home the equaliser immediately after the interval to send the home fans into wild celebrations.
The draw sees both sides perfectly poised ahead of the second leg in Japan, as Reds boss Holger Osieck hinted afterwards. "I think the result is suitable for us. It leaves the opportunity for both teams to still win in the second leg," the German remarked. "It's important for us in particular because we came here to achieve a result that would leave us with the chance to win the series."
While Urawa seem to have earned a slender advantage with an all-important away goal, Sepahan have everything to play for as they proved themselves capable of taking the coveted trophy back to West Asia.
Sepahan coach Luka Bonacic is confident his side would achieve the feat next week. "Urawa are a strong team but tonight's game proved that we have a chance and we are determined to get a result," said the Croatian. "This final is 180 minutes. The first 90 is finished now and we're waiting for the next 90."
Urawa stun the hosts
Spurred on by a 30,000-strong crowd who flocked into the Iranian fortress, Sepahan went out to take the initiative in the opening exchanges. Captain Moharram Navidkia created the first real chance in the 20th minute, passing the ball through to Karimi whose angled shot went straight to the arms of Ryota Tsuzuki.
Urawa soon responded with Yuichiro Nagai's header, and he almost broke the deadlock in the 27th minute when he hammered the ball against the right post.
Sepahan also went close in the 40th minute, when Karimi collected a well-timed through ball from Navidkia, only to be denied by a last-minute tackle from Keisuke Tsuboi inside the penalty area.
Despite the absence of their skipper Nobuhisa Yamada and defensive stalwart Marcus Tulio Tanaka, it was the visitors who finally opened the scoring. Ponte found the net just before half-time against the meanest defence in this year's competition, after receiving a neat pass from Tadaaki Hirakawa on the left edge of the area. The Brazilian playmaker unleashed an accurate shot from 20 metres, which went in off the back post.
Subs lead the counter
Bonacic brought in midfielders Mohsen Hamidi and Ebrahim Lovinian in an attempt to strengthen the flanks, and the latter was involved in the equaliser a minute after the restart. Lovinian fired an effort from the middle of a crowded area against the left post, but the ball fell in the path of Karimi who flicked home the rebound into an empty net.
The hosts kept up the pressure in search of a winning goal. Abudul Wahab Abu Al Hail could have put Sepahan ahead with a powerful drive that went just wide, with both Hamidi and Navidkia forcing brilliant saves from Tsuzuki midway through the second half.
Emad Mohammed also had a chance to score in the 76th munute, but the Reds' centre back duo of Tsuboi and Nene left little room for the Iraq international. The diminutive striker fed his compatriot Al Hail in the area five minutes later, only for the midfielder to direct his shot just wide of the upright.
Sepahan could have snatched all three points in the closing minutes, but Mohammed's last effort of the game sailed well over the bar.