Asia's finest set for Tokyo tussle
The UEFA Champions League may be the premier club competition in the world but its eastern equivalent can increasingly hold its own. The Asian Champions League is holding its final in Tokyo on Saturday when either Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of South Korea or Iran's Zob Ahan will lift the trophy, pocket the $1.5 million prize money and start planning for the Club World Cup in December.
The journey to the Japanese capital started nine months and thousands of air miles ago for both finalists, the only survivors of the 32 teams that set out all over the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in February. Even with the draw split into two geographical zones until the quarter-final stage, it is a slog of a competition and rare is the team that can combine domestic and continental success.
The ones in the Western zone that were thought to be capable of doing so were Saudi Arabian giants Al Ittihad, the last team not from Korea or Japan to win back in 2005, Al Hilal and especially Uzbek moneybags Bunyodkor with their World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. After falling at the quarter-final stage in 2009 at the hands of eventual winners Pohang Steelers, the Brazilian, reportedly the highest-paid coach in the world, raided the victors for a couple of star strikers with the Asian scoring habit and if that wasn't enough to give rise to optimism, the team's utter domestic dominance meant that full focus could be given to the 2010 continental challenge.
Rivaldo led his team-mates through the group stage and into a second-round game against Al Hilal, only to lose 3-0. Scolari stepped down within days and the Tashkent titans were left to reflect on a third successive failure in the knockout phase and a feeling that the team, which reached the last four in 2008, last eight in 2009 and the last 16 in 2010, are not really getting to grips with Asia. It won't be any consolation that the scarcely less wealthy UAE teams aren't either - all four finished bottom of their groups.
In the meantime, the story in the east, which has played host to the trophy for the past five years, was the whitewash handed out to Chinese teams by their South Korean rivals. There were eight Sino-Korean meetings in the group stage and all eight went the way of the K-League. For good measure, Suwon Bluewings made it nine by knocking out the Middle Kingdom's sole remaining representative, Beijing Guoan, in the second round. "Chinese teams have been an ATM for Korea in terms of points," lamented one prominent blogger. It was doubly frustrating as in February, the national team picked up a first ever win over South Korea to ensure that the uniquely Chinese condition known as "Koreaphobia" will linger a little longer, just as it looked to have been cured.
Japanese clubs, looking to repeat the success of 2007 and 2008, fared better, but not much. Highly-rated Kawasaki Frontale failed to clear the first hurdle as did new boys Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Kashima Antlers were especially keen for a first continental prize after three consecutive J-League titles but after a good group stage, lost at home in the second round to defending champions Pohang Steelers of Korea while 2008 winners Gamba Osaka fell foul of Seongnam.
The Koreans, looking for a third triumph in five years, were flying. All four representatives made the last eight, which is to say, the eastern zone belonged entirely to the Land of the Morning Calm, an unprecedented achievement. Three of the four never made it any further however. In an all-Korean tie, Suwon were slain by Seongnam but not before coming back from a 4-1 first-leg deficit to take the return match 2-0. Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia did for 2006 champions Jeonbuk Motors while Pohang were eliminated by Zob Ahan.
That put the Iranians on the map. The team, who play at a 10,000-capacity stadium in Isfahan, may be short of stars but are not lacking in terms of effort and resilience. In attack, they have the ability to take whatever chances come along as the likes of Al Ittihad, Bunyodkor, Pohang and, in the semi-final, Al Hilal found out. Al Hilal were especially disappointed. The Riyadh giants last won the title in 2000 and seemed to have the conditions - a skilful Saudi spine, talented overseas stars and coach Eric Gerets - for a trip to Tokyo in place. In the end however, they just couldn't breach that Zob Ahan backline and lost both legs 1-0.
Igor Castro was on target again in the second of those games to maintain his record of scoring in every round. Talking to ESPNsoccernet in Tokyo, he warned Seongnam not to expect an open and exciting match. "If you see our games, every game is 1-0, 2-1, 1-1, 0-0. I don't think that this is bad," the Brazilian said. "We are not Barcelona who attack all the time and score all the time. We don't have this quality but our strength is organisation and tactical discipline. We defend from the front; I am a striker but I also have my place in defence. This is a huge game for us and we want this so much."
Zob Ahan coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh is the man who has steered Zob Ahan to Tokyo. He has been here before - kind of- as he was assistant coach with Isfahan city rivals Sepahan when they reached the final of the 2007 competition and lost at the hands of Urawa Reds. Fans in search of a better omen may be encouraged to learn that that Zob Ahan are backed by a steel company, just like defending champions Pohang Steelers.
Seongnam will be taking nothing for granted - especially coach Shin Tae-yong. The 40-year-old, known as 'Mr Seongnam' in honour of his 12 years of service as a player, was in action in 1996 when they won the Asian crown and, in his last game for the club, in 2004 when they didn't but really should have. It is the second of those ties that has been on the mind just south of Seoul of late. Then, when the final was still two-legged, the K-League powerhouse won the away leg at Al Ittihad 3-1. The return match, played in front of a full house on a freezing Korean night, was seen as not much more than a formality. It was a calamity for the hosts as the Saudi Arabians, inspired by the magnificent Mohammed Noor, stunned a sell-out crowd with a 5-0 win.
"We thought the second leg would be easy," Shin admitted. "We won't make that mistake again. We watched their match [Zob Ahan v Al Hilal] on television; I think they are very strong both physically and technically. But after our match with Al Shabab [in the semi-final] we now know how to play West Asian teams well and playing the final in Japan is the same as a home game for us. I think we have more chances of winning the title than Zob Ahan."
It will be like a home game as there should be more Seongnam fans, lots more. The team may be known in Korea for a lack of support but every time the Yellows play in Japan, they play in front of full houses. Seongnam are owned by the Unification Church, also known as The Moonies, and a sizeable percentage of their Japanese flock will be flocking to the National Stadium. Whether they have much to cheer about remains to be seen.