Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Long road to AFC Champions League final reaches its destination for Scholz and Urawa

Urawa Reds' players greet supporters at the end of the AFC Champions League semi-final football match between South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC and Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in Saitama. (File/AFP)
Urawa Reds' players greet supporters at the end of the AFC Champions League semi-final football match between South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC and Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds in Saitama. (File/AFP)
Short Url:
28 Apr 2023 08:04:37 GMT9
28 Apr 2023 08:04:37 GMT9
  • Japanese team visit Riyadh on Saturday for first leg of final against reigning champions Al-Hilal

Paul Williams

The last time Urawa Red Diamonds played in the AFC Champions League, the Saudi Pro League season had just begun and Cristiano Ronaldo was preparing for a new Premier League season with Manchester United.

That was over eight months ago; a time when neutral venues and bio bubbles were still a thing in Asia’s continental showpiece.

Since that time one J.League season has ended and another is well under way. So it is fair to say this has not been a normal buildup to the final for the Japanese powerhouse, but Danish defender Alexander Scholz is trying to take it all in his stride.

“Actually, for us, the road to the final started even before with the win in the Emperor’s Cup final of two seasons ago,” he told “The Asian Game” podcast this week.

“That was my first half-year here and I feel like everything is connected.

“Each player has to find their way and their own approach to the game and I’m not so much thinking that it’s been a long time, I’m more thinking that it’s connected. So for me it’s positive, but for sure as a spectator (and) as someone watching from outside, it can be a bit confusing.

“I get questions from my friends, ‘is it still the same tournament or is it another tournament?’”

Much has changed in those eight months since they defeated two-time champions Jeonbuk Hyundai of South Korea in a thrilling semifinal at Saitama Stadium.

Aside from the changeover in playing personnel, with the two goalscorers in that game — Kasper Junker and Yusuke Matsuo — both since leaving the club, there has also been a change in the dugout with Spanish coach Ricardo Rodriguez departing at the end of a disappointing 2022 J.League season, replaced with former Ettifaq coach Maciej Skorza.

“I think the overall picture of our team has changed,” the 30-year-old said.

“I think especially our structures are much better. We’re simply stronger, we have a stronger sense of unity in the team, and I feel like we are going into the games within an attacking mindset.

“We’re training a lot of tactics, a lot of positioning, so we can rely more on each other. We have to know where the other one will be in this (situation) and that situation. This is something that in the long run is going to benefit the team,” Scholz added.

“Of course, we still have a lot of points to improve and I think it’s hard to see the style within the first six months of a new coach. It takes longer. But the signs are there.”

As Scholz explained, the arrival of the experienced Polish coach, who has won numerous Polish league titles, has had an immediate impact, with Urawa impressing in the early stages of the new season in Japan.

Despite back-to-back losses to begin the season, the Reds have since put together an unbeaten run that extends to 11 in all competitions and sit fourth on the J.League table, just two points off top spot.

It is that impressive run of form that is giving Scholz and his teammates all the confidence in the world heading into this weekend’s first leg at the King Fahd Stadium.

“We’ve been on a good run in the league,” he said.

“So we have a lot of confidence going into this game. We’re excited about it, and now we’re mostly preoccupied with the preparation with the travel ahead of us. We have to acclimatise quickly — there’s a time difference of five hours I believe.

“We (had) a game Sunday afternoon, so if we speak about the Al-Hilal game, it’s about recovering from that (league) game and adapting quickly to the new surroundings.”

Scholz, and his central defensive partner Marius Hoibraten, have the unenvious task of trying to quell the influence of Al-Hilal marksman Odion Ighalo, who needs just one goal to claim a share of the Golden Boot this season alongside Edmilson Junior from Al-Duhail.

But Scholz, who played in the UEFA Champions League for Danish side Midtjylland just a few seasons ago, scoring three goals, including one against Liverpool in a 1-1 draw, is not phased by the challenge of facing the former Watford and Manchester United star.

“It’s a great chance for me to prove myself once again,” he said.

“Every game is like an exam for me and this exam is the biggest there is here, so whether it’s him or if it’s another (striker), I always approach the game in the same way.

“But what I also know is that I cannot give him even one centimeter in this game, or he will take advantage of it. Also his playing style will probably be different from the Japanese strikers or Brazilian strikers I usually play against, so I’ll be prepared.

“But he’s like any other striker, of course. I know I have to be ready for him.”

Scholz and his teammates are more than ready — they have waited eight months for this moment.

Most Popular

return to top