Japan’s Reds target Asian glory after race row

Tokyo (AFP) – Urawa Reds will be favourites to exorcise Japan’s Asian Champions League demons when they host Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in the second leg of the final on Saturday. With the Reds hoping to end a decade of hurt in Asia’s premier club competition, Brazilian forward Rafael Silva became embroiled in a race row following last weekend’s 1-1 draw in Riyadh, adding to the tension. Urawa officials filed a formal protest to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) after racist comments were posted on the player’s Instagram account. “From my heart I would like to say it doesn’t bother me at all,” Silva told local media, looking to defuse the controversy. “My focus is elsewhere. All my energy is focused on the second leg,” added the Brazilian, who gave Urawa an early lead last week before Syrian sharp-shooter Omar Kharbin equalised for Al Hilal. Japanese clubs have struggled in Asian Champions League since Urawa’s victory in 2007 and Gamba Osaka’s triumph a year later. But Urawa now have a superb opportunity to restore a measure of Japanese pride after years of Chinese and Korean dominance. Silva played a key role as the Reds shocked star-studded Shanghai SIPG 2-1 on aggregate in a tempestuous semi-final last month, scoring the winner to eliminate Andre Villas-Boas’s fancied side. Urawa will be hoping the 25-year-old has fully recovered from a sore ankle sustained in Riyadh last weekend for what is set to be a sell-out in Saitama. Reds boss Takafumi Hori welcomes back centre-back Mauricio from suspension as his side look to extend their unbeaten home run in the competition’s knockout stage. “Condition-wise I feel good,” said Mauricio. “Our opponents have a lot of players with high quality so hopefully we can restrict the number of chances they have.” Al Hilal, chasing a first continental title since 2000 after finishing runners-up three years ago, will pin their hopes on more magic from Kharbin, the competition’s joint top scorer with nine goals in 12 games. After overcoming Iran’s Persepolis 6-2 on aggregate in the last four, Al Hilal’s long-serving club captain Yasser Al Qahtani promised to complete the job against Urawa. “This team never gives up and the fact that we are back in the final is proof of that,” he told the AFC’s official website. “We will do everything we possibly can to break Urawa’s (home) record and make sure we come back from Japan with the trophy.” This year’s final is expected to break the record for attendances over the two legs. After more than 59,000 turned out to watch the first-leg stalemate, a similar size crowd is expected for the return match this weekend.

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