x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The West hopes to keep its grip on Asian Champions League trophy

Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia have a chance to keep the cup on this side of the continent, when they face South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai today.

Al Ahli goalkeepers take part in a training session ahead of the Asian Champions League final in Ulsan, some 300 kms south-east of Seoul. Jung Yeon-je / AFP
Al Ahli goalkeepers take part in a training session ahead of the Asian Champions League final in Ulsan, some 300 kms south-east of Seoul. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

ULSAN, SOUTH KOREA // For the first time since 2006, the Asian Champions League trophy has spent the majority of the year in the western reaches of the world's largest continent. After the region's collective failure to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time since 1974 and its poor showing at the 2011 Asian Cup, it has been a valued resident.

Whether it extends that stay for another 12 months depends on 90 or, perhaps, 120 minutes of action in the South Korean city of Ulsan today as Ulsan Hyundai host Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia.

It is the fourth successive year that the west's best have had to head east for a one-off match. In 2009, Al Ahli's Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad lost to Pohang Steelers in Tokyo. A year later, Pohang's K-League cousins Seongnam were too good for Sepahan of Iran.

Al Sadd ensured that Qatar, the hosts of the 2011 Asian Cup, restored some pride last November when the Doha club surprised Jeonbuk Motors, also of South Korea, by winning a penalty shootout in Jeonju. It is a story that has served as inspiration for Al Ahli's Czech coach Karel Jarolim.

"Every team that enters the tournament dreams of the final and we are no different," Jarolim said. "It has been a tough journey and we are now focusing all our thoughts and energy on Ulsan. We expect a tough game in Korea but we are ready."

Ahli's surge to the final was almost interrupted by Al Jazira, in a final-16 match in May, when the Pro League side led 2-1 in the second half and 3-2 in extra time, only for the hosts to lose in a shootout at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

Ahli arrive in South Korea as underdogs against an Ulsan team that have looked increasingly impressive. Both are looking for first continental titles but the two countries are old hands. Al Ahli can follow Al Ittihad and Al Hilal and make it a fifth win for Saudi Arabia while Ulsan could make it 10 for the Koreans.

After progressing out of their group with ease, Ulsan defeated Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol in the second round to book a quarter-final against the Saudi powerhouse Hilal, who they outscored 1-0 in South Korea and 4-0 in Riyadh, leading one Saudi journalist to call it the best away-team performance in the kingdom for a decade. Uzbekistan champions Bunyodkor were defeated 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-final.

Kim Ho-gon, the Ulsan coach, is not eager to accept the label of favourites. "Any team that reaches the final is a good team," he said.

Kwak Tae-hwi is a South Korean international as is the impressive Lee Keun-ho, who can be found just behind the prolific Brazilian striker Rafinha.

Al Ahli have South Americans of their own. The Brazilian Victor Simoes and Diego Alberto Morales of Argentina provided some of the guile and goals with experienced Saudi star Taisir Al Jassim is the lynchpin in midfield.

The team's Omani striker Amad Al Hosni is also eager to hit the target and achieve the main goal of taking the trophy back home.

"The fans of Al Ahli are some of the best fans in Saudi Arabia and they play an important role in motivating the players," he said. "And I promise the Al Ahli fans that we will have a good performance in the final and win the title."

The club, which lost the 1986 final at home to Daewoo Royals from South Korea, are hoping to step out of the substantial shadow cast by Al Ittihad. Twice in the past decade their city rivals have paraded the continental trophy around Jeddah.

That was why it was the sweetest of semi-final wins against their local nemeses. A goal down from the first leg at the stadium they both share in Jeddah, Ahli came back in the second to win 2-0.

An Ahli win in South Korea would perhaps be seen as perhaps mark the end of a painful period in Saudi Arabia's football history that has included failures to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and a dismal performance at the 2011 Asian Cup.

Such failures have fans around the continent asking whether Saudi Arabia is still an Asian powerhouse. It is a subject for debate, but Ahli can make a powerful argument by bringing the trophy back to the country for the first time since 2005. It will be welcomed back by fans of west Asia football.

sports@thenational.ae

Ulsan v Ahli, 2.30pm, Al Jazeera Sport +7

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