When two sides have a history of exciting encounters, any new instalment in their rivalry is always eagerly anticipated, and Wednesday’s AFC Champions League semi-final clash between Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Jeonbuk Motors of Korea Republic is no exception.
Seven years ago, the teams met at the same stage of this very competition, with Al Ittihad winning 4-3 over two legs before going on to become the first Saudi side to win the title by beating Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in the final. That particular triumph is remembered especially fondly by Osama Al Harbi, the Al Ittihad defender whose return-leg goal against Jeonbuk proved the difference between the two outfits.
Speaking to FIFA.com, the defensive veteran showed he is under no illusions about the challenge facing his team: “Jeonbuk will be a tough game. They are a big club and always a handful. They are currently front-runners in the South Korean league and they are always competitive in Asia.”
That said, 2004 is never far from the 27-year-old’s mind, especially the penultimate minute of the return leg in Gwangju, when Al Harbi hit an equaliser past Jeonbuk’s shot-stopper Lee Yong Bal, to leave Al Ittihad one goal ahead on aggregate.
“It was a vital game,” the defender said. “We were determined to come away with a result after our 2-1 home victory and we managed a 2-2 draw, which was enough.”
As for the goal itself, the man the Al Ittihad faithful call Lionheart had this to say: “I’ll never forget it as long as I play. It was the second-to-last minute of the game and the team was staring defeat in the face. Then, the next moment we had qualified for the final!”
Al Ittihad are familiar with Korean opposition. A year after overcoming Jeonbuk and Seongnam to take the 2004 Champions League, they retained the title with a win over Busan I’Park. In 2009, Al Ittihad were defeated, again in the final, by Pohang Steelers.
The Saudi side’s Korean connection resumed this year in the Champions League quarter-finals when they defeated FC Seoul 3-2, with Al Harbi netting one in the opening leg. For the defender, this competitiveness makes perfect sense: “It just shows the strength of Korean football. Three Korea Republic sides qualified for the AFC Champions League quarter-finals and two of those made it through to the semis.”
“It shouldn’t be an issue for us,” he added. “We qualified after beating a South Korean side in FC Seoul, who are no less dangerous than Jeonbuk. We’ll be trying to implement the coach’s instructions, get the result and move on to the final.”
Al Harbi is one of the Jeddah-based club’s most experienced players having joined Al Ittihad back in 2000. Playing in his seventh AFC Champions League campaign for the side, the veteran defender sees his hard-earned know-how as a vital asset in crunch encounters.
“I’m one of the team’s longest serving members,” said Al Harbi, “and for that I have to thank God and my parents’ unfailing support. I’m known for my powerful shooting and physical strength but it’s the support myself and my team-mates give each other that really sets Al Ittihad apart as a side.”
Al Ittihad’s second Champions League title in 2005 saw the side qualify for that year’s FIFA Club World Cup, eventually finishing in fourth place. Looking back on the tournament, Al Harbi had this to say: “Taking part in the Club World Cup was the club’s proudest moment. We beat Egypt’s Al Ahly and were knocked out after a fierce struggle by eventual winners Sao Paulo from Brazil.”
A record third Champions League title and qualification for the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan beckon, but two hurdles remain: Wednesday’s opponents Jeonbuk and then the winners of the other semi-final clash between Qatar’s Al Sadd and Korean side Suwon Bluewings.
“As players we’ve got a lot of self-belief,” Al Harbi concluded, “and team morale is high. Hopefully that will carry us through to the final. Al Sadd and Bluewings are great sides and either of them would deserve a place in the final. Personally speaking, it would be nice to see an all-Gulf final!”