Old guard Shinzo Koroki hands Urawa Red Diamonds familiar advantage over Al Hilal in AFC Champions League final

Urawa Red Diamonds played out a 1-1 draw away to Al Hilal in the first leg of the AFC Champions League 2022 final to claim the slimmest of advantages heading into the return encounter at Saitama Stadium 2002 on May 6. EPA/STR

With Al Hilal and Urawa Red Diamonds facing off in the AFC Champions League final for the third time in six seasons -- the only pairing to meet in the decider of Asia's premier club competition on more than one occasion -- there was always a chance that history would repeat itself.

And both camps could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu following Saturday's final first leg of the 2022 edition at King Fahd International Stadium, as Urawa grinded out a 1-1 draw to take the slightest of advantages back to Saitama for next weekend's return encounter.

As the tournament's record four-time and defending champions, having reached the final with an emphatic 7-0 rout of Al Duhail in the last four and on the back of two massive domestic wins over Saudi Pro League rivals Al Nassr and Al Ittihad, as well as boasting home advantage, Al Hilal were undoubtedly the favourites.

If not for the final as a whole, then at least for Saturday evening's opening encounter in Riyadh.

And early on, that looked to be the case when they took the lead in the 13th minute when a mix-up between Urawa goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa and his centre-back Alexander Scholz allowed what looked to be a harmless cross to roll all the way to the back post -- where Salem Al-Dawsari pounced to fire the hosts ahead.

The miscommunication was certainly uncharacteristic of two players boasting immense experience, especially Nishikawa -- whose penalty-shootout heroics against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the semis were the very reason Urawa were even in the final.

The Reds were nearly shot themselves in the foot again shortly after the half-hour mark when an overhit backpass by Ken Iwao almost gifted Al Hilal a second, before Nishikawa recovered in time to prevent another mishap.

But as one of Urawa's old guard was having a difficult evening, another rose to the occasion.

When it was Al Hilal's turn to mess up in defence, with Ali Al-Bulaihi's sliding interception sending the ball past goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf and back off the foot of the post, Shinzo Koroki was quickest to react to fire home on the rebound and bag what ultimately proved to be the equaliser.

The strike was emblematic of Koroki. It was far from the prettiest finish and there was a huge element of luck involved, but the only thing that mattered was that he put the ball into the back of the net.

As he has over 200 times throughout a career that has never hit the heights of Japanese football's biggest stars but has been a respectable one nonetheless.

Koroki is no stranger to the ACL. He was part of the side that won it all in 2017, as well as the one that suffered the agony of losing to Al Hilal in the final two years later.

Yet, had things panned out differently, there was a chance he would not even have been present in the first place.

The 36-year-old has spent all of 2022 on loan at fellow J1 League outfit Consadole Sapporo and did not play a single minute of the Reds' run to the final.

Nonetheless, as fate would have it, the fact that the tournament was extended to this year -- coinciding with Koroki returning to the club under new coach Maciej Skorza -- resulted in his return to the biggest stage Asian club football has to offer.

There is still plenty to play for but the advantage is now with Urawa, especially after Al Hilal star Al-Dawsari ruled himself out of the second leg by getting a red card for petulantly kicking out at Iwao in the dying embers on the game.

Sent off -- just like he was in the 2017 final.

And just like that season, the Reds take home a potentially-valuable 1-1 draw from Saudi Arabia.

That year, it was enough for them to secure a second continental crown as they went on to win the return encounter 1-0.

The past could yet repeat itself in the ACL this season.

It is almost poetic that one of Urawa's old guard, who was part of that folklore, is playing a pivotal role in reliving that history.