This Wednesday sees the AFC Champions League reach its climax as Syrian outfit Al Karama entertain Korea Republic's Jeonbuk Motors in the return leg of the final at Homs' Khaled Bin Al Waleed Stadium.
Jeonbuk enter the decider with a two-goal advantage following their 2-0 first leg win and, as such, travel as overwhelming favourites to lift the trophy. However, if the tournament thus far has taught us anything, it is that absolutely nothing can be written off where these two sides are concerned, with Al Karama in particular having made a habit of upsetting the odds.
What is guaranteed is that, with continental supremacy and a spot at the illustrious FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 up for grabs, no quarter will be given as the teams attempt to apply a fairytale ending to their remarkable campaigns.
Ending the stranglehold
When the Brazilian midfielder Botti sealed the 2-0 first leg victory for Jeonbuk in the final minute of the match, no-one questioned that it left the Korean outfit well placed to end the recent western Asian dominance of the Champions League.
Should Jeonbuk go through, their success will also ease the worries of a nation that, despite their status as the most frequent Asian visitors to the FIFA World Cup™, have yet to get their hands on the Champions League trophy and rub shoulders with global football's giants at the FIFA Club World Cup.
The last and only time they have come within touching distance of this feat was in 2004, when two teams from Korea Republic, including Jeonbuk, reached the semi-finals. On that occasion, however, Jeonbuk's dreams remained unrealised as they went out 4-3 on aggregate to eventual winners Al Ittihad.
It was not so much their defeat that season, but more the manner in which they lost that may provide Jeonbuk some useful lessons ahead of this all-important meeting with Al Karama. After all, they were only condemned to defeat by an Osama Al Harbi strike two minutes from time in the return, while Seongnam Chunma - Al Ittihad's next opponents - then contrived to surrender an equally strong-looking 3-1 first leg victory in the final, going down 5-0 in the return.
Syrians' home comforts
With a two-goal deficit to claw back, there is no question that Al Karama have left themselves with the proverbial mountain to climb in the second leg.
However, they have already proved, arguably, the biggest surprise packages in the tournament's history, sweeping past many famous names en route to the final thanks to their resilience and strength at home - highlighted by an emphatic 4-0 win over the reigning champions, Al Ittihad.
They enjoyed a dream start in the AFC Champions League by defeating UAE's Al Wahda at home and then Saba Battery of Iran away, both by identical 2-1 scorelines. Despite crashing 4-0 in their next game away to Qatari giants Al Gharafa, they rallied to produce a strong comeback back on home soil in the next head-to-head and came up with a morale-boosting 3-1 victory. Then, following a 4-2 defeat to Al Wahda in UAE, they again fell back on their home record, downing Saba Battery 1-0 in Homs to book their passage to the knockout stage.
A 2-0 quarter-final first leg loss against the reigning champions Al Ittihad then suggested to everyone that Al Karama's involvement was coming to an end, and yet they emerged unlikely winners after a dramatic 4-0 extra-time victory in Homs. Next came Kuwaiti side Al Qadisiya in the semi-final and, for once, the Syrians' failed to find the net in front of their home fans, although keeping their visitors out enabled them to seal another unexpected triumph with a 1-0 win in Kuwait City.
Hence, when all seemed lost after the first leg, Al Karama coach Mohammed Kwid again looked to home comforts - and the passionate backing of the Homs' support - for fresh hope. "The good thing is that we are playing the second leg at home," he said, "and our supporters will cheer us on and give us that extra motivation."