From drama in Mandalay to an epic finale in Guangzhou. Over 1000 miles and 291 days separated the opening game of the 2015 AFC Champions League and its tense and terse final, where Elkeson sealed the title for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande, but both games, and the tournament in general, saw tight contests and late drama as a common theme.
Beginning with that opening preliminary match between Myanmar’s Yadanarbon and Singapore’s Warriors which went all the way to a penalty shootout, there were twists and turns aplenty throughout the club tournament representing the globe’s most populous continent. FIFA.com takes a look back at nine months of spectacle and theatre, which ended in Luiz Felipe Scolari adding his name to the annals of managerial history.
Penalties in the preliminaries
Qatar’s Al Sadd best summed up the intensity of the preliminary rounds, edging past Bahraini outfit Riffa 11-10 in a penalty shootout before progressing to the final tournament courtesy of more spot-kick heroics, following a 4-4 draw with UAE side Al Wahda. Former J.League champions Kashiwa Reysol also required a 115th-minute winner to see off a strong challenge from Chonburi FC.
With the final tournament line-up decided, the group stages saw business as usual for most of the continent’s big boys, with half of the knockout slots taken by former champions. One notable absentee though, were 2014 winners Western Sydney Wanderers, who failed to progress from an admittedly tough Group H. Eventual champions Guangzhou Evergrande topped that particular pool, with the Aussies’ last-ditch victory on the final group matchday against Guangzhou not enough.
"We won 2-0 at Guangzhou and we couldn't qualify,” Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic said in the wake of their victory in China PR. “It is such a strange feeling. But tonight we showed the quality of an AFC Champions League champion.”
New boys Naft make a name for themselves
Naft Tehran were the sole fresh face in the knockout rounds, and did themselves proud in progressing to the quarter-finals at the expense of two-time finalists Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia. Evergrande overcame a surprise first leg defeat in Korea Republic to see off Seongnam on aggregate, with Luiz Felipe Scolari taking charge after Fabio Cannavaro’s departure.
Kashiwa Reysol stunned Suwon Bluewings to progress to the last eight with Jeonbuk Motors the sole Korean team to make it into the quarter-finals, thanks to Gamba Osaka’s dismantling of FC Seoul, despite Korea Republic being the only nation to have all four representatives reach the knockout stages.
Lekwhiya triumphed in a suitably dramatic all-Qatari clash, progressing past Al Sadd courtesy of substitute Ismail Mohamad’s aggregate winner, with the second leg poised for extra time. Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia made overturning Persepolis’ first leg victory look straightforward and were joined in the last eight by eventual finalist Al Ahli, who saw off fellow UAE side Al Ain in a pulsating 3-3 second leg draw, progressing on away goals.
After a fascinating round of 16, there were seven different countries represented in the last eight, with just Japan boasting two sides in the quarter-finals. Naft Tehran’s fairytale run was halted by eventual finalists Al Ahli of UAE, who won both legs to reach their first AFC Champions League semi-final. All three other quarter-finals saw one leg drawn and the other won by the eventual semi-finalist with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Guangzhou and Gamba Osaka, courtesy of a dramatic Koki Yonekura stoppage time winner, all progressing.
Al Ahli so close to history
You could spot the odd-one-out in the final four, with UAE’s Al Ahli playing their first semi-final against two-time champions Al Hilal, while the other semi saw 2008 winners Gamba Osaka face off against 2013 champions Guangzhou. Despite seeming out of place, Al Ahli stunned the Saudis, with defender Kwon Kyung-Won grabbing a dramatic late winner in the semi-final second leg to see them into an inaugural final. They would face the unstoppable force of Guangzhou, after the Chinese side did enough over two legs to down Gamba.
To a most unlikely final then. Al Ahli, playing in their first, and Luiz Felipe Scolari, unbeaten as Guangzhou coach since taking over in June, making his AFC Champions League final debut after twice reaching the knockout stages with Uzbek side Bunyodkor. A shootout for a spot in Japan at the FIFA Club World Cup was anything but a goal-happy affair, a tense and terse goalless opening leg in Dubai was matched by a first half in China PR that saw neither side bother the scoresheet. Elkeson was the man to change that.
The Brazilian etched his name into the history books, and in turn wrote a new chapter for his side and his manager with his wonderfully adept turn and finish in a bouncing Tianhe Stadium. Scolari joined former Guangzhou boss Marcello Lippi in winning the FIFA World Cup™ and two different continental titles, while the Chinese Super League champions regained their 2013 crown. Scolari and Co will be hoping for more history when they take their place in Japan next month, with a FIFA Club World Cup quarter-final against Club America the reward for nine months of hard work, drama and theatre.