Al Sadd’s convoluted journey to be crowned Asian kings continued until the very end of their campaign. It took almost three hours for the Doha club to claim a dramatic victory over Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors after extra time and a penalty shoot-out, with Nadir Belhadj converting the decisive spot-kick for the Qataris in a pulsating final of the AFC Champions League on Saturday. The win was the first by a west Asian side since 2005 and ensured the club's first participation in the FIFA Club World Cup next month.
It was even more dramatic because Jorge Fossati’s men appeared physically and mentally depleted after letting the lead slip, with substitute Lee Sung-Hyun’s equaliser two minutes into second-half stoppage time in Jeonju. The visitors had come from behind after Eninho’s opener on 19 minutes, to take a 2-1 lead through an own goal on the half hour mark by Sim Woo-Yeon, and then a superbly executed volley from Abdul Kader Keita in the second half.
“I could not imagine that it would go to penalties,” Fossati said in the press conference after the match. “I was really worried especially when it went to extra time because our physical condition to play this game was not the same as normal. We’d only arrived here two days ago after a long flight and then had to adapt to a six-hour time difference.”
Aside from the physical challenge, the Qataris also had to deal with the intimidating atmosphere created by a vibrant 41,805 strong crowd inside the Jeonju World Cup Stadium, where the Motors had won all of the six matches en route to the final. Al Sadd could nevertheless take heart from an unlikely victory in their most recent visit to Korea Republic last month, when they beat Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-0 in the semi-final first leg, in a match staged in a similarly unreceptive environment.
“I was worried that our players could not finish the game for this reason, but the players fought not only with their bodies but their hearts,” added Fossati, as the former Uruguay and Qatar coach struggled to hold his emotions. “That’s why we could win on penalties.”
Saqr’s goalkeeping heroics
Although the centre-back duo of Lee Jung-Soo and captain Abdulla Koni were at the core of the Qataris’ stubborn rearguard, arguably the most valuable player of the night was goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr, who made a series of fine saves throughout 120 minutes before blocking two penalties in the shoot-out.
“He played fantastic today but it was not the only game that he has been fantastic in this competition,” said Fossati. “Today he had a big game. The Jeonbuk players did not miss the penalties but he saved them. He also made two or three very important saves, and the one at the end was extraordinary.”
The crucial moment he referred to was in the fourth minute of added time. With the match tied at 2-2 after Lee headed home the equaliser, the Motors went all out in search of a last-gasp winner. Park Won-Jae sent an in-swinging cross from the left for Jeong Shung-Hoon, who let the ball run through to an onrushing Kim Dong-Chan. But just as the unmarked forward chested the ball down on the right side of the goalmouth, Saqr came to the rescue by parrying it away from danger.
For all those heroic saves, Al Sadd’s epic win could not have been complete without Keita, who forced the own goal with a dangerous cross in the first half, before then putting his side ahead with a brilliant volley just after the hour mark. It was only the second goal of the competition from the Côte d’Ivoire international, but one which will still with him forever.
“I’m very happy because it’s the first time for me [to have a hand in] two goals, although the first one was deflected by a defender,” Keita told FIFA.com after the match. “I know my family, my wife, my son, and everyone in my country would be happy about this, and I want to think about this final every time because it’s very important for me to score the goal.”