East will meet west in the final of the AFC Champions League as Korean Republic cup winners Jeonbuk Motors and Syrian champions Al Karama overcame Ulsan Horang-I and Al Qadisiya respectively in the semi-finals.
Aatef Jenyat scored the only goal in the 15th minute at Kuwait's Friendship & Peace Stadium to ensure Al Karama's qualification. The Syrians won 1-0 on aggregate to set up a final showdown with Jeonbuk, who earlier defeated domestic rivals Ulsan 4-1 for a 6-4 aggregate victory.
Giantkillers go all the way
Al Karama are the surprise package of this year's tournament, knocking out defending champions Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, in the quarter-finals. They went into second leg as underdogs after being held to a goalless draw by the Kuwaitis at home in the first leg earlier this month.
Despite playing in front of a partisan crowd, it was the Syrians who dominated the opening exchanges. They immediately put the home side under pressure and it paid off when Jenyat's strike from outside the area sailed past Al Qadisiya goalkeeper Nawaf Al Khaldi.
Knowing that they needed to score two goals to advance, Al Qadisiya coach Mohammed Ibrahim brought on three attacking players after the interval who created several good chances, but still they failed to find an equalizing goal. The Kuwaitis even missed a penalty with seven minutes to go when Mesaed Neda fired his effort from 12 yards over the bar.
"Al Qadisiya controlled the play for nearly the entire 90 minutes but they were unlucky today as they couldn't score," conceded Al Karama coach Mohammed Kwid after the match. "I am relieved."
Ulsan fans are silenced
In the other semi-final, Jeonbuk scored an unlikely away triumph over their K-League rivals Ulsan. Jeonbuk trailed Ulsan 3-2 from the first leg last month but stormed into a 2-0 lead with goals from Choi Jin-Chuel and Chung Jung-Kwan inside the opening 20 minutes.
Choi's goal came in the ninth minute of the match when he planted a header past Ulsan goalkeeper Kim Jee-Hyuk from a corner to put the sides level on aggregate. Ten minutes later, Jeonbuk's advantage in the second leg was doubled when Choi Chul-Soon's cross from the left was headed home by Chung.
The second half was dominated by Ulsan as they threw everything forward in search of a goal. However, their eagerness to get forward left gaps at the back and Jeonbuk substitute Lim You-Hwan profited by making it 3-0 in the 69th minute. Although South Korean international striker Korean international Lee Chun-Soo pulled one back for the Tigers a minute later, another Jeonbuk substitute, Lee Kwang-Hyeon made the tie safe with a goal in the 82nd minute.
Victorious coach Choi Kang-Hee was happy to point out that his tactical changes worked well. "The substitutions were the key and we might have lost the match had we not made any changes in formation," he said in the post-match press conference. "We analysed the first leg carefully and we were clear about Ulsan's weakness so we learned how to exploit them."
Meanwhile in Kuwait, Al Karama coach Kwid was intrigued to see coach Choi's tactics pay off. "We thought Ulsan had the upper hand but since Jeonbuk won, we have to reconsider our options and strategy for the final," he said. "It is a good thing that we will play the all-important second leg at home."
The first leg of the final will be held in Korea on 1 November with the second leg in Syria seven days later.
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