ULSAN (South Korea): Ulsan Hyundai will bid to become the first South Korean team to clinch the AFC Champions League on home soil Saturday after storming unbeaten into the final against Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli.
K-League teams have been the dominant force in the tournament since its inception, winning three of the nine Champions League titles so far and reaching the final in each of the last four seasons.
But curiously, and despite their passionate fans, none of those wins was sealed at home. In 2004, Seongnam Chunma Ilhwa were thrashed 0-5 by Al Ittihad in the second leg, and last year Jeonbuk Motors lost on penalties to Al Sadd.
On the road it’s been a different story. Jeonbuk were crowned 2006 Asian champions against Syria’s Al Karama in Homs, while Pohang Steelers and Seongnam won in 2009 and 2010 when the final was staged at a neutral venue, Tokyo.
Last year’s Korean Cup champions nevertheless start as hot favourites for Saturday’s game at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium after bulldozing their way to their first Champions League final.
The team coached by former South Korean international defender Kim Ho-Gon are unbeaten in all 11 of their matches this season, and they are on course for a tournament record if they can seal their ninth successive victory this weekend.
As well as seeing off Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor in the semi-finals, they also beat Brisbane Roar and Kashiwa Reysol, the champions of Australia and Japan, plus Japan’s Emperor’s Cup holders FC Tokyo and Beijing Guoan of China.
Their most impressive display came in the quarter-finals when they travelled to Riyadh to face Al Ahli’s Saudi rivals Al Hilal with a slender 1-0 advantage but ripped apart the current Saudi league leaders with a 4-0 away win.
The Tigers’ attacking style owes much to Brazilian striker Rafinha, who has scored four Champions League goals since arriving in the summer, as well as big centre-forward Kim Shin-Wook and winger Lee Keun-Ho.
“There is very good communication between myself and our other attacking players Lee Keun-ho and Rafinha,” explained Kim, a South Korean international.
“We are all very skilful and have very good technique and we are confident that we can score many goals.”
It is not only in front of goal where Ulsan have impressed as their defence, marshalled by skipper Kwak Tae-Hwi and superbly backstopped by goalkeeper Kim Young-Kwang, has let in only one goal in their last four games.
While Ulsan’s passage has been relatively smooth, Al Ahli have battled their way to the final, needing a penalty shoot-out against Al Jazira in the last 16 and a come-from-behind 2-1 aggregate win over Al Ittihad in the semi-finals.
They will start as the underdogs but Czech coach Karel Jarolim has a talented squad that includes captain Taisir Al Jassim, Omani forward Amad Al Hosni and Brazilian frontman Victor Simoes, who has seven goals so far in the competition.
However the Jeddah club, who reached the final of the Asian Club Championship – a precursor of the Champions League – in 1986, will be without key defender Mansour Al Harbi after he was sent off in the semi-finals.
An extra prize for the winners is a berth in this year’s FIFA Club World Cup, where they will face North, Central American and Caribbean champions Monterrey of Mexico on December 9. – AFP
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