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Wasteful Al-Hilal held to a draw by Urawa Reds

Syrian striker Omar Khribin wheels away in celebration after slotting home Al-Hilal’s equalizer against Urawa Reds. Inset: Urawa coach Takafumi Hori has defensive issues to address. (AFP)
RIYADH: Ramon Diaz praised his Al-Hilal side’s character after they failed to secure a positive result at home in the first leg of the 2017 AFC Champions League final.
The Riyadh giants were held to a 1-1 draw against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in front of 60,000 fans at the King Fahd International Stadium. They were stunned after just seven minutes as Rafael Silva swept home on the rebound following Salman Al-Faraj’s failure to clear the Brazilian’s initial effort properly.
“We had a slow start to the game, and conceded an unexpected goal, but I was impressed by the players’ reaction after the goal,” Al-Hilal coach Diaz said after the game.
Indeed, the Al-Hilal players did not let the frustration of going behind get to them. Instead, Diaz’s men had 70 percent possession in the first half and pounded the Japanese goal with attack after attack, but with limited success.
An 18th-minute injury to star midfielder Carlos Eduardo further complicated things for the hosts as Diaz was forced into an early substitution and introduced Nawaf Al-Abid for his first game after a lengthy injury layoff.
Striker Omar Khribin was particularly wasteful as the hosts created numerous chances and repeatedly found space behind Urawa’s defence. But despite the side’s inefficiency in front of goal, Diaz remained positive as he lauded his players’ attacking intent.
“If we didn’t create chances, that would have been a real concern, but we were clearly the better side and created multiple chances,” said the Al-Hilal boss.
One man who ensured the hosts did not score the goals their possession perhaps deserved was Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. The 31-year-old was forced into multiple last-ditch saves in the opening half, and he admitted his defenders were not on their day, leaving him exposed to face a series of Al-Hilal chances.
“Football is a team sport,” reflected Nishikawa. “Today, our defence was not perfect, but that is football. As a team, it is your duty to help one another and in games like this you have to be there to make key saves.”
Manager Takafumi Hori echoed his goalkeeper’s words as the performances of some Urawa players were brought into question, particularly that of left-back Tomoya Ugajin.
“It happens that in football matches you can go through difficult times, like what we saw against Al-Hilal. We were under pressure and sometimes a player doesn’t handle that pressure well. But we work as a team and sometimes other players have to carry their teammate if he is not playing well.”
Al-Hilal may have dominated possession throughout and created chances, but their only goal of the game came in the final minutes of the first half as Khribin got on the end of a misfired Salem Al-Dawsari shot to control and slot past Nishikawa. The Syrian’s strike was his tenth goal of the AFC Champions League season on the same day he was named in the three-man shortlist for the 2017 Asian Footballer of the Year award.
The second half saw a notable drop in intensity as Al-Hilal players suffered the effects of a physically demanding, robust playing style adopted throughout the opening period. Diaz looked to bring on fresh legs as he introduced striker Mukhtar Fallatah to partner Khribin up front. The former Al-Wehda striker was making his Al-Hilal debut in the competition under unenviable circumstances and Diaz was quick to admit it may not have been the ideal setting for the 31-year-old to make his bow.
“I am pleased with his overall performance,” said the Al-Hilal boss. “He has been training well and came in at a difficult stage of the match. I think he did well.”
The result leaves the Riyadh giants with the uphill task of trying to get an away goal in Saitama next week. A goalless draw will be enough for the Japanese side to lift their second AFC Champions League title.