Rafael Da Silva goal helps Urawa Red Diamonds to draw with Al Hilal
Rafael Da Silva earned Urawa Red Diamonds the narrowest of advantages ahead of the second leg of the AFC Champions League final after the Brazilian's early strike secured a 1-1 draw with Al Hilal at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh on Saturday evening.
Da Silva's seventh minute effort was cancelled out eight minutes from half-time by Syrian striker Omar Khribin to leave Urawa with the upper hand going into the return at Saitama Stadium next week.
Urawa are seeking to win the continental title for the first time since claiming their only AFC Champions League crown a decade ago while Al Hilal are looking to end a drought that goes as far back as 2000.
Da Silva's pace and power brought the opener for Urawa as the Brazilian beat right back Mohammed Al Burayk on the outside for pace before centering a ball the Al Hilal defence failed to clear, with the persistent Da Silva pouncing to bobble the ball over the line.
The goal stunned the home side, who had made a lively start, and their hopes were take a further hit when Carlos Eduardo - injured in a tussle with Kazuki Nagasawa in the build-up to the goal - was forced to go off with an injured left knee.
However, the loss of the influential Brazilian, who was replaced by Saudi Arabia international Nawaf Al Abed, had little impact on Al Hilal's ability to dictate the pace of the opening half.
With Abdullah Otayf commanding in front of the defence as Salman Faraj and Nicolas Milesi did the leg work, the home side's relentless pressure was always likely to pay off.
Otayf, in particular, was putting Urawa's back line under pressure with his long-range passing allowing Al Burayk to exploit the space behind Ugajin to set up Khribin.
The Syrian failed to capitalize midway through the half when his shot was blocked at point blank range by Shusaku Nishikawa.
Khribin was again denied by Nishikawa when he latched onto Salem Al Dawsari's scuffed shot through the middle as Al Hilal continued to tighten the noose.
Eight minutes before the break, though, the 23-year-old pulled Al Hilal level, controlling Al Dawsari's miss-hit shot after Al Burayk again unlocked the Urawa defence and Khribin scored his 10th of the campaign from close range.
Al Hilal continued to pressure the visiting defence, Khribin nodding the ball across the face of goal in injury time only for Yasir Al Shahrani's low shot to sear across the face of goal before being cleared.
The Saudis probed further following the restart, with both Khribin and Nicolas Milesi going agonisingly close to putting Al Hilal in front in the first five minutes of the second half.
As the half wore on though, Al Hilal's control of the game waned, with the withdrawal of the influential Otayf and Milesi allowing the Japanese side to enjoy more possession in midfield.
With just two minutes remaining, Urawa were narrowly denied a second when Tsukasa Umesaki's shot was tipped away at full stretch by Abdullah Al Mayouf to ensure the game is evenly poised ahead of next Saturday's second leg at Urawa's Saitama Stadium.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch