Yokohama F. Marinos do it the hard way but they are finally in an AFC Champions League final

Yokohama F. Marinos are finally through to an AFC Champions League final for the first time after beating Ulsan HD 5-4 on penalties, following a 3-3 aggregate draw in the semifinals. Masashi Hara/Getty Images

For a team that has never tasted the highest level of continental success that Asian football has to offer despite their illustrious stature, it almost seemed at times that Yokohama F. Marinos were doing everything they could to keep it that way.

Obviously, that was not really the case.

And, after threatening to throw away a three-goal lead and having to play with ten men for over 80 minutes on Wednesday, Marinos are through to the 2023-24 AFC Champions League final.

Having been beaten 1-0 by Ulsan HD in last week's first leg, a 3-2 victory for the J1 League outfit in the return encounter sent the tie into extra-time and then penalties, where they would hold their nerve to prevail 5-4 in the shootout.

For the first time since 1989-1990, when the tournament was still known as the Asian Club Championship and they were called Nissan Yokohama, Marinos are through to the final of the continent's premier club competition.

Yet, in a rollercoaster encounter at Nissan Stadium on Wednesday, it initially looked as though they had spurned this exact opportunity.

With a one-goal deficit to overturn, Marinos raced into a 3-0 lead inside the opening half-hour as rising star Asahi Uenaka rose to the occasion with two goals that sandwiched a clinical finish by the prolific Anderson Lopes.

But after Matheus Sales headed home a corner to pull one back for Ulsan, the tie really became interesting when Takumi Kamijima conceded a penalty and received a straight red in the 39th minute for handball after sliding into a challenge.

Darijan Bojanic converted from the spot to level the scores on aggregate and it now looked like Ulsan were in the ascendancy, especially given there was still an entire half to play with them boasting a numerical advantage.

Still, despite Ulsan's concerted efforts, they were unable to find a way past the plucky William Popp in goal, as he was helped along by some desperate defending, the woodwork on several occasions, and even a VAR review which cancelled out a second for Bojanic just after the restart.

Popp would produce one more pivotal stop after the first eight kicks of the shootout were all successfully converted, diving correctly to his left to keep out a tame effort from Kim Min-Woo and paving the way for Eduardo to slot home to winning spot-kick to spark off wild scenes of celebrations at Nissan Stadium.

Marinos will now face Al Ain in a two-legged decider on May 11 and 25 and it will not get any easier, especially after the way the Emirati outfit defeated tournament favourites Al Hilal in the West Asia Zone semi.

It has remarkably taken Marinos until the last edition of the ACL in its current iteration, with the Asian Football Confederation's club competitions to undergo a revamp next term, to finally reach the final.

This, for a team that can lay claim to being among their country's most famous clubs, with seven league titles to their names and with the impressive status of being just one of two teams to have never been relegated from the top tier of Japanese football.

When it came to the continental stage, they have had to endure decades of seeing their counterparts excel while they failed to rise to the occasion having never made it past the round of 16 in the ACL era.

In that time, Urawa Red Diamonds have claimed three titles while both Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka also reached the pinnacle of Asian football.

Japan's rich history in Asian club football has seen them produce six continental champions and it is curious that Marinos is somehow not among them.

It seems high time that this storied club from Yokohama add their name to this list.

If they do just that, they would certainly have done it the hard way -- not just this season but throughout the entirety of the ACL's history.