Al Hilal left with much to do as Urawa hold hosts in Asian Champions League final opener

Defending champions squander early lead in 1-1 draw in Riyadh, while goalscorer Salem Al Dawsari saw red late on to rule himself out of second leg next week

Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds' Hiroki Sakai, left, fights for the ball with Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal's Michael Delgado during their match in the first leg of the Asian Champions League final at King Fahd International Stadium, in Riyadh. AP
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Asian Champions League holders Al Hilal face an uphill battle to retain their title after being held to a disappointing draw in the first leg of the competition's final.

Hilal, who are also the tournament’s record winners, could not find an advantage against familiar foes Urawa Red Diamonds on Saturday night in Riyadh, the hosts up early in the first leg and then pegged back.

The opening stanza of an unprecedented third Asian Champions League showpiece between the pair finished 1-1, with Hilal's Salem Al Dawsari seeing red late on - much to the dismay of a trembling King Fahd International Stadium that had called and cried out for more.

Of course, they have been spoilt of late. Hilal are contesting a fifth Champions League final in nine years, hunting down a history-extending fifth continental crown. Three have come in the past four editions.

Urawa, those rivals from recent past, are not so decorated – the 2017 victory against Hilal represented their second title – but they bring back their 2019 conquerors to Saitama next Saturday as the sudden favourites for the trophy.

Hilal must wonder how they let slip a golden chance to head to Japan with the tie in their favour. They led on 13 minutes, Al Dawsari adding another moment of magnitude to his highlight reel.

Lurking at Urawa's back post, he latched onto Michael’s low cross that evaded everyone and ran right across the visitors' penalty area.

Al Dawsari, on the scoresheet in the 2019 final and the match-winner in Saudi Arabia’s famous World Cup win against Argentina five months ago, simply supplied the finish by firing high into the Urawa net. It sent the 50,000-odd crowd wild in celebration.

Soon, Hilal showed signs of a taxing schedule taking its toll. Having dominated the opening exchanges, they were suddenly lax in possession, with returning centre-back Ali Al Bulaihi almost letting in Urawa veteran Shinzo Koroki to score.

It was a portent of what was to come. Eight minutes into the second half, Al Bulaihi attempted to intercept a pass to Koroki but somehow contrived to send the ball ricocheting off the Hilal upright.

Koroki, now 36, continued his run and pounced on the rebound, finishing past a scrambling Abdullah Al Mayouf in the home goal. For the first time on the night, the Saudi support fell silent, in contrast to the 700 jubilant Urawa fans who made the long trip west.

Stunned, Hilal searched to regain the lead, with Moussa Marega drilling a low shot inches wide from the angle on the right. But this was as close as his side came.

Then, four minutes from time, a potentially decisive blow. Al Dawsari and Urawa vice-captain Ken Iwao collided when contesting a challenge and, as they sprawled on the turf, the Hilal man kicked out at his rival.

It was a petulant move, the referee brandishing a straight red to rule out Al Dawsari from the second leg. The Saudi star has been here before: he was sent off against Urawa in the 2017 final.

Much like six years ago, Urawa departed the first leg in Riyadh after a 1-1 draw. They edged out Hilal in the return fixture in Japan.

And so to Saitama once more, Hilal seemingly with a mountain to climb. No doubt, on a tight and increasingly tense evening in capital, the Champions League luminaries lost a little of their sheen.

Updated: April 30, 2023, 6:57 AM