January 29, 2018


Kashiwa Reysol gatecrashed their way to the final of Al Kass 2018, overcoming a magnificent Benfica side on penalties after a thrilling match – one of the greatest the tournament has ever seen – ended 3-3 in normal time.

The Portuguese team had notched up an astonishing 17 goals in three matches en route to the semi finals, posting a goal difference of +14. Reysol, in contrast, had recorded two narrow 3-2 victories and a 1-1 draw, repeatedly demonstrating an ability to prevail against teams who created far more chances. History would repeat itself on a night of wonderful entertainment at the Aspire Zone.

From the first whistle, Benfica set about demonstrating their attacking prowess, and were almost ahead within a minute. Tiago Gouveia broke free down the right and crossed for Gonçalo Ramos, who failed to connect properly with the goal at his mercy. Still, the chance set the tone for the opening period, with the talented Portuguese engineering a slew of presentable opportunities.

The Japanese seemed happy to sit deep, hoping to catch their opponents on the break although, with the game 15 minutes old, they had not managed to mount a meaningful attack.

And, midway through the first half, Gouveia deservedly put Benfica in front after running onto a ball over the top and rounding keeper Leo Kokubo, before slotting into an open goal. Within seconds, Gomes could have made it two, only for his low effort from the right of the area to roll just wide of the far post.

The Portuguese whiz kids were by now utterly dominant, leaving their Japanese counterparts to chase shadows as they sprayed the ball around, content to wait for another opening.

Yet, when the next chance arrived, it fell to Kashiwa, who took full advantage. On 38 minutes, Hiryu Okuda latched onto a high ball from his own half and beat the defender before applying the simplest of finishes to level matters. The goal was almost identical to Benfica’s opener. It was also Kashiwa’s only shot on target of the first half but, once again, they had made it count.

The second period got underway and normal service resumed, with an endless procession of one-way traffic in the direction of the Reysol goal.

Kashiwa were now playing with 10 men behind the ball as Benfica continued to press. And, astonishingly, the tactic worked a treat on the hour mark as the Japanese took a shock lead.

Lone striker Okuda chased the ball down on the halfway line and played a through ball for Mao Hosoya to chase. Benfica centre back Francisco De Morais got there first and passed back for keeper Samuel Soares to clear. However, the goalie took a heavy first touch and was instantly punished by Hosoya, who dispossessed him before finishing calmly.

And, with 25 minutes remaining, Kashiwa added a third goal with their third attempt on target, when a corner from the left was flicked on for Okuda to plant the simplest of headers from close range, with Soares rooted to the spot.

To Benfica’s credit, they continued to display the same attacking instincts that had taken them so far. And, on 70 minutes, marauding midfielder Ronaldo Camara was centimetres away from narrowing the deficit when his magnificent curling strike from 25 yards out slammed into the foot of the right-hand post.

With each passing minute, the prolific Portuguese created a new opportunity, but the Kashiwa backline stood firm until, with 15 minutes remaining, Cunha powered home a header from a corner on the left to set up a grandstand finish.

Kashiwa keeper Kokubo was performing heroics to keep his side in front, putting his body on the line to frustrate the Portuguese as the clock ticked down. Benfica looked to be heading out when, with five seconds left, Camara powered through a crowded area to blast home from close range. It was an incredible finish to a storming 90 minutes of frantic football.

Yet the drama was far from over, as a pulsating penalty shootout began. The first nine spot kicks were converted and, with sudden death looking, Benfica’s Ramos – the tournament’s leading scorer – blasted his effort wide.

It was a game that the Portuguese youngsters did not deserve to lose, but enormous credit must also go to the kids from Kashiwa, who stuck brilliantly to their gameplan. It is the fourth time that Reysol have appeared at Al Kass, and they have acquitted themselves superbly well on each occasion. Few will begrudge the Japanese side if they manage to go all the way this time.