After becoming the first Arab side to win the Asian Club Championship, the precursor to the AFC Champions League back in 1989, Qatar’s Al Sadd are now gunning for a second continental crown - this time against Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Motors in the final at Seoul’s FIFA World Cup stadium on Saturday.
If Al Sadd manage to bring the trophy back to Doha they will become the first Arab side to win Asia’s premier club competition in both its old and new incarnations. Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal twice claimed the title in its previous format, while compatriots Al Ittihad (two) and UAE’s Al Al Ain (one) have three Champions League wins between them. To date, however, no team from West Asia has etched their name on the honours board for both tournaments.
For the Qatari club, victory would prove a tremendous boost to their standing and perhaps provide the impetus to wrest back domestic ascendancy, lost to compatriots Al Gharrafa and Lekhwiya in recent years. Even more appealingly, it would enable Al Sadd to make a maiden appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup, which is set to take place in Japan next month.
However, before they set their sights on Japan, they must focus on Saturday's assignment, one in which Arabic supporters across the region are hoping will result in a first trophy clinched by a Middle East side since 2006.
A rocky road
Al Sadd’s route to the final has been far from straightforward. Forced to pre-qualify, the club made a blistering start, first defeating Saudi giants Al Ittihad 5-1 in their West Asian play-off semi-final, then winning 2-0 over India’s Dempo SC in the final to secure a berth in the group stage.
Drawn in a very tough Group B alongside Iran’s Esteghlal, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor and Saudi side Al Nasr, the Qataris had a clear strategy heading into their six matches. After earning a respectable draw against Esteghlal in Tehran, they made the most of their home advantage to record two crucial victories, against Pakhtakor 2-1 and Al Nasr 1-0.
With points in the bag, Jorge Fossati’s men then kept things tight, first drawing 1-1 with Al Nasr in Riyadh, then snatching a dramatic point with a late equaliser at home to Esteghlal (2-2). The Qataris left it late again to secure a draw in their final fixture against Pakhtakor in Tashkent, which was enough to see them top their section with ten points.
In the knockout phase, Al Sadd hosted formidable Saudi opponents Al Shabab in the single-leg Round of 16, where an early strike coupled with a brilliant performance from goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr were enough to see them through to the last eight.
Next up were Iran’s Sepahan, who edged a close-fought game with a single-goal victory in the opening leg. However, the Iranians’ joy was to shortlived with the first-leg match being awarded to Al Sadd 3-0 after Sepahan were deemed to have played an ineligible player. In the return leg, Fossati’s charges went two goals down before Senegalese star Mamadou Niang settled nerves with a riposte as the home side went through to the semi-finals 4-2 on aggregate.
The semi-finals were no less dramatic. Niang scored twice in the first leg to earn a 2-0 victory away to Korea Republic’s Suwon Bluewings, but in the return fixture they failed to take the game to their opponents, conceded a goal then had to defend with their lives for a narrow aggregate win.
Joy in Doha
With the result against Suwon Bluewings secured, the celebrations started at Doha’s Jassim Bin Hamad stadium, with tearful players performing Arab dances on the pitch alongside the tactician behind it all, Fossati. The coach spoke of the club’s desire to bring home the trophy, saying: “We expect to win the title, and we’ve every right to feel that way. We’re just dying to regain this trophy after a 22-year wait.”
The Uruguayan’s skill in evaluating opponents has been evident throughout Al Sadd’s long Champions League campaign and, though the final will take place in the opposition’s backyard, he remains unfazed: “We’re not scared of facing Jeonbuk Motors in South Korea or anywhere else for that matter. I’ve know Jeonbuk well, because I faced them when I was coach at Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia, and I’ll be passing on what I know to my players to help them bring the trophy back to Doha.”
For their part, the players are no less passionate. They all recognise the importance of returning Al Sadd to the pinnacle of Asian football, and none more so than rising star Khalfan Ibrahim. “We’ve really earned our final spot, especially doing it against a side like Suwon,” said the 2006 Asian Player of the Year. “Al Sadd have proved they deserve to win the Champions League and now we’ve made it to the last game, we’ll be giving everything to make history and bring credit to football in Qatar and the Arab world."
Al Sadd have every right to feel pleased heading into Saturday’s decider. At the start of the tournament no one expected them to get this far, but they have defied the experts every step of the way. While they have been exposed defensively at times, especially during return legs at home, the final is a single match, affording them every chance to put in a focused performance worthy of champions.
Al Sadd will take further heart from their experience against teams from Korea Republic. Their most recent game there ended in a 2-0 win over Suwon Bluewings, and they are no strangers to the country’s stadiums.
They will also take encouragement from the fact that their forward pairing of Senegal’s Mamadou Niang and Côte d'Ivoire’s Abdul Kader Keita are back in action after missing the second leg of the semi-final against the Koreans. Backline imports Lee Jung-Soo from Korea Republic and Algeria’s Nadir Belhadj will have a crucial role to play in the final, while local stars Ibrahim, Abdulla Koni and Mohammed Kasola lend flair and fighting spirit to the side.