Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Al Ittihad Stand In Way Of Pohang's Asian Dream
The South Koreans meet Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad in Tokyo in the final of the Asian Champions League. The opposition also has two wins under its belt. No team from the giant continent has ever won three but that is set to change.
It is going to be an interesting evening. Pohang, who won the 1997 and 1998 editions, started this season slowly but have improved over time and the team has lost just once in eleven games in Asia this year, one more than their opponents.
Pohang deservedly progressed past Umm Salal of Qatar last Wednesday. After winning 2-0 at home in the first leg of the semi-final, the Steelers went to Qatar just needing to avoid defeat to book a place in the final. The K-league team did not disappoint and won 2-1 thanks to two great strikes from Macedonian marksman Stevica Ristic and Noh Byung-joon.
Coach Sergio Farias was a happy man. "The final is going to be great and we think that we are going to face a good team similar to ours," he said.
But the Brazilian knows that his team is the underdog. The Saudi Arabians have yet to taste defeat in the Asian Champions League and in the semi-final defeated Japan’s Nagoya Grampus 8-3 over two legs.
"Al Ittihad scored a lot of goals in the semi-final but our team has also scored good goals,” Farias announced.
The Tigers of Jeddah have a fearsome reputation in South Korea and rightly so. Since the Asian Champions League came into existence in 2003, Al Ittihad has eliminated all three of the Korean teams it has come up against.
First to fall under the Saudi scimitar was Jeonbuk Motors in the semifinal of the 2004 version. The Jeonju team was heading for the final when goals from Brazil’s Tcheco and then, in the last minute, Osama Al-Harbi put the West Asians in the final.
There, another Korean team was waiting. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma won the first leg in Saudi Arabia 3-1. As far as Asia was concerned, the tie was over and the second leg a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t. Al Itthad stunned Seongnam by winning 5-0 in the second leg in one of the biggest shocks in Asian soccer history.
If that wasn’t enough, Al Ittihad then extinguished Korean hopes a year later. Busan I’Park became the next victim at the semi-final stage. The south coast club was savaged at home, losing 5-0. Asking Busan to travel the length of Asia for the second leg was cruel and there, the scoreline was a more moderate 2-0.
Al Ittihad went on to win the final and the nickname from the Seoul media of the ‘K-League Killers’.
There are some survivors from that all-conquering team. Mohammed Noor scored twice against Seongnam and three times in the recent victory over Nagoya. The defensive duo of Hamad Al Montashari and Rehda Tukar are also still around.
New are Tunisian sharpshooter Amine Chermiti, aiming to become the first player to play in FIFA's Club World Cup with two different teams (the first was with Etolie in 2007) and Moroccan marksman Hicham Aboucherouane. Along with the experienced Saudi spine that runs through the team, the North Africans offer menace in attack. Al Ittihad is in form and is feared.
Coach Gabriel Calderon is playing down his team’s chances.“Before every match the chance to win is 50/50 for each team so I cannot say who will win,” said the Argentine.
"But we always play for a win and we will do so again in the final.”
As the final is no longer played over two legs but just the one, the destination of the round-shaped trophy will be known after 90 minutes, or perhaps after 120. At the end of it, either Pohang or Al Ittihad will be basking in the glory of making history in one of Asia’s most modern cities.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com