SEOUL-- Having won their past two matches in extra time, South Korean football team Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are now a victory away from reaching the final of Asia's top club tournament for the first time in six years.
Jeonbuk will take on Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Saitama, Japan.
Saitama, just outside Tokyo, has been hosting all knockout matches for the East Region -- involving teams from South Korea, Japan and Thailand, among others -- as the centralized site. The Jeonbuk-Urawa showdown will be played at Saitama Stadium 2002, which is the home stadium for Urawa during J1 League play.
In the round of 16 last Thursday, Jeonbuk eliminated their K League 1 rivals Daegu FC 2-1 in extra time, with Kim Jin-gyu scoring the winner in the dying seconds. Then in the quarterfinals on Monday, Jeonbuk rallied past Vissel Kobe 3-1, as Gustavo and Moon Seon-min found the back of the net in extra time.
Jeonbuk players are running on fumes, having battled through 240-plus minutes of football over a five-day span. As they are trying to win their first AFC title since 2016 and their third overall, the task won't get easier against Urawa.
Reds routed Johor Darul Ta'zim of Malaysia 5-0 in the round of 16 and then beat BG Pathum United of Thailand 4-0 in the quarterfinals, even after having two early goals wiped off on handball and offside calls upon video reviews.
Six players have scored those nine goals for the Japanese team, including three by the Swedish international David Moberg Karlsson.
Urawa will be playing in front of their home supporters, and Jeonbuk will have to contend with a sea of red -- with fans decked out in Urawa's signature color -- in the hostile confines.
For Jeonbuk, two foreign attackers, Mo Barrow and Gustavo, each had a goal and an assist in the quarterfinals. Head coach Kim Sang-sik said after Monday's victory that he was especially pleased with Gustavo's performance, after the Brazilian forward had looked lethargic on the field in some previous matches.
Veteran midfielder Kim Bo-kyung was subbed out midway through the first half of the quarterfinal match, despite not suffering any injury. Coach Kim explained later that his plan all along was to play Kim Bo-kyung either in the first half or the second half, but the midfielder appeared too fatigued to even be out there for 45 minutes. Jeonbuk are now hoping the 32-year-old former K League 1 MVP will be back at full strength after a couple of days of rest.
At his prematch press conference Wednesday, coach Kim said he wants to make the rest of the K League proud with a victory over the Japanese side.
"We will look at tomorrow's match as the championship final, not just the semifinal game," Kim said. "The pride of Korean football and the K League will be on the line."
Kim said back-to-back extra-time matches have taken their toll on his players, but he has confidence in their ability to bounce back.
"I think winning those two games has brought the guys even closer," the coach added. "I can't wait to see the players on the pitch tomorrow. I am thinking of nothing but victory."
Each of the past two AFC Champions League finals featured a K League 1 team. In 2020, Ulsan Hyundai FC edged out Persepolis FC of Iran 2-1 for their second AFC crown. Last year, Pohang Steelers lost to Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia 2-0.
The two-legged final for this season won't be contested until next year. The West Region's knockout stage, involving teams from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates, will take place in February 2023. The championship matches will be played on Feb. 19 and 26.
Source: Yonhap News Agency