It has been another long ride.  Eights months have past since the group stages of Asia's top club attraction began and during that helter-skelter period the dreams of many a player and club have been dealt a crashing blow.

But two teams have stayed the course. Al Ain, who have held on by their fingertips to stay in competition for the crown they won in 2003, and Al Ittihad, who, as champions, joined the fun late yet great as they sent their knockout rivals spinning.

West Asia, and more specifically the Gulf region, has long since been a winner, but on Saturday, fittingly as celebrations marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan commence, Ittihad and Ain, locked at 1-1, will play for the main prize as the final show moves to Jeddah.

With so much resting on the result, psychology and coaching tactics have naturally come to the fore ahead of the derby clash. Ittihad's Romanian coach Anghel Iordanescu sprung a surprise in the first leg in the United Arab Emirates, leaving out captain Mohamed Noor and defender Redha Tukar following pre-match preparations cloaked in secrecy.

But it was the home side that almost caused the biggest shock by taking the game to the champions and coming so close to earning a precious 1-0 win thanks to Ali Msarri's 50th-minute effort. Sierra Leone striker Mohamed Kallon saved Ittihad's blushes converting a penalty with just five minutes to go.

Prior to that display, the champions had looked invincible but Ain coach Milan Macala has taken heart from the combative performance and, while the Saudi Arabians once again remain tight-lipped, the burly Czech is talking up his side's chances. 

"It was clear that Al Ittihad wanted 0-0, 1-0 or 1-1. I wanted a 2-0 win for Al Ain and got 1-1. It was a lucky two points for them," he said in belligerent fashion.

Striking difference
Macala, a former coach of Saudi Arabia as well as Kuwait and Oman, has fought tooth and nail to get his team to the brink of glory. Ain squeezed through the group stage defeating Sepahan 3-2 in the make-or-break final match before scoring two late goals to break more Iranian hearts, Pas, in the quarter-final and qualify on away goals. The 62-year-old had had to find two new frontmen after the departure of Ivory Coast star Boubacar Sanogo and Brazilian Edilson during the summer and while Panamanian Luis Tejada is taking time to settle, Nigerian striker Nwoha Onyekachi struck form with a hat-trick in the 6-0 semi-final first leg dismantling of Shenzhen Jianlibao. 

The white-haired Macala may appear to be growing more rotund by the day but his enthusiasm remains strong as ever. Kicking every ball, his encouragement from the touchline had led to many an interview being interrupted until he regains his voice. Such has been his magnetism that whispers whip through the dunes that his name may be on the cup.

"The morale of the players is very high," said skipper Fahad Ali, who returned to the starting 11 for the first leg after a long injury lay-off. "This team have shown tremendous fighting abilities when the chips were down and it is this factor along with our dependence on the team as a whole and not on any individual players that has brought us to our second final in three years."

Job to be done
Iordanescu, who coached Ali at Al Ain a few years ago, would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Thanks to that precious away goal, Ittihad begin the match as favourites but, like his side's display in the United Arab Emirates, the former boss remains somewhat defensive over their chances of retaining the Champions League crown. 

"The result is in our favour because a 1-1 away draw is good for us," said the quietly spoken but vastly experienced coach who led Romania to the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cup finals. "But that does not mean that this tie is over yet. We still have plenty of work to do in Jeddah."

Like Macala, the Romanian was forced to enter the transfer market for strikers during the summer and, as with the Czech, only one of his purchases is currently playing to his true ability. Kallon, on loan from Monaco, has bagged five goals to join the competition's top scorers but Cameroon's Joseph-Desire Job, on loan from Middlesbrough, is yet to hit top form.

With the onus to attack sitting somewhat uncomfortably on Ittihad and Iordanescu's shoulders, Job, like any one of the players on show on Saturday, may feel the time has come to play a starring role as the curtain falls on the Asian Champions League.