Japan's Urawa Reds pin hopes on Brazilian goal machine Silva

Richard CARTER
Rafael Silva has been instrumental in getting his side to the World Club Cup

As Japan's Urawa Reds aim to tackle the likes of Real Madrid in the World Club Cup, they will look again to Brazilian sharp-shooter Rafael Silva, whose goals got them to such lofty heights.

The 25-year-old Sao Paulo native smashed a superb last-minute winner last month against Al Hilal to sweep the J-League side to a second Asian Champions League title.

He also scored the vital away goal in the first leg in the Saudi capital, after stunning star-studded Shanghai SIPG with an early strike in the semi-final as Urawa ended a miserable run for Japanese clubs in Asia's top club competition.

The mercurial striker seems to have saved his best for the Asian Champions League, bagging nine goals from only 10 games.

"He is a vital player because he brings something different to the team. He is a more direct and explosive forward compared to the other players," said Tiago Bontempo, a Brazilian journalist who writes about Japanese football.

"For the past few years, Urawa has been signing many promising players and been rated as favourites every year in Japan, but failed to win any major trophy until this year's ACL. Rafael proved to be the last piece of the puzzle," added Bontempo.

Silva has been less prolific in the domestic J-League, finding the net 12 times in 25 games for the Saitama side, who ended up finishing seventh.

But his goals have played a major part in getting Urawa to football's elite club competition -- overshadowing some high-profile compatriots plying their trade in Asia, such as Shanghai's Hulk and Oscar.

He was the joint second top scorer in this year's competition -- alongside Hulk and just behind Syrian star Omar Kharbin.

Silva hit the headlines for different reasons in the run-up to the final, however, after racist comments were posted on his Instagram account, sparking an official protest from Takafumi Hori's side.

Silva is "the key player for the Urawa Reds," insisted Argentine Sergio Ariel Escudero, a former Reds player himself.

"He is currently doing very well, he is riding the crest of the wave," he told local media.

Silva is certainly enjoying the most prolific season of his career in terms of goals.

He was signed in February 2017 from J-League rivals Albirex Niigata, where he struggled for goal-scoring consistency.

Before that, he had a frustrating spell with Swiss club FC Lugano following a move from Brazilian outfit Coritiba, where he had limited first-team starts.

But he now seems to have found his feet -- and his shooting boots -- with Urawa and will be one to watch in the UAE.

"He may be frequently injured, but when he is healthy Urawa can play on a higher level," Bontempo told AFP.

Urawa face host nation representatives and UAE champions Al-Jazira in Saturday's quarter-final, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid awaiting them next Wednesday should they reach the last four.