If names account for anything, it is little surprise that Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, or Union translated into English, possess a level of team spirit that has successfully carried them through numerous continental battles, and carved out a niche for the club as Asia's comeback kings.
Last week's AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg saw the Saudi giants twice battle from behind to defeat a star-studded Guangzhou Evergrande 4-2. While the hard-fought victory on home soil came as a timely boost for the two-time Asian winners, it was by no means the first time that they rallied to claim a spirited triumph.
Indeed, the Jeddah side claimed both of their continental crowns after comeback victories. Firstly, in the 2004 final, they lifted the Champions League trophy for the first time, by overcoming a two-goal deficit against Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. In the first leg, Al Ittihad led the Koreans 1-0 for over 50 minutes only to suffer a sudden collapse in the closing stages to lose 3-1 at home.
Heading into the away decider with nothing to lose, the visitors showed their resolve as they put five unanswered goals past the hosts to emerge with a stunning 6-3 aggregate win. Redha Tukar opened the scoring before the half-hour and Hamzah Saeed doubled the lead shortly after the restart. Inspirational captain Mohammed Noor then completed a brace, before Manaf Aboshgair rounded off the resounding win with a stoppage-time strike.
Entering the next edition as defending champions, Al Ittihad had a relatively smooth campaign en route to the final where they faced up to inaugural winners Al Ain. With both sides aiming to become the first team to win the Champions League on more than one occasion, it was the Saudis that came up trumps.
They trailed in the opening leg only for Mohamed Kallon to equalise with a late strike to earn the Saudis a precious away draw. They then proceeded to prevail 4-2 in the return and thus retain the title 5-3 on aggregate.
Noor leads experienced core
The team has largely changed since those heady years, with a series of veterans making way for the next generation of Ittihad heroes. Spearheading the new crop is 23-year-old Saudi international striker Naif Hazazi, who last week earned a penalty for old-stager Noor to equalise, before turning the game on its head with two spectacular headed goals as they outmuscled Guangzhou.
The team’s core, however, remains the experienced trio of Noor, Tukar and 2005 AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari, all of whom featured significantly as they won their back-to-back Champions League crowns.
Notably, Noor has become the team’s long-standing talisman having skippered his side through numerous continental campaigns. The 34-year-old spectacularly burst onto the scene in the 1999 Asian Cup Winners' Cup final, striking a late equaliser to draw his side level against Chunnam Dragons, before the Saudis triumphed in extra time.
Despite his advanced years, Noor has proven that he still has the ability to succeed on the continental stage, scoring against Guangzhou from the penalty spot, before providing the attacking impetus as they dominated the remainder of the contest.
While Al Ittihad travel to China hoping to capitalise on their two-goal lead in the second leg next Tuesday, Guangzhou’s headline-grabbing line-up, led by FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Marcello Lippi, present a formidable obstacle. The Chinese champions boast one of the tournament's most formidable line-ups in, most notably, Argentinian Dario Conca, former Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios and Brazilian striker Muriqui.
Al Ittihad coach Raul Caneda, though, remains calm and believes his side can go through buoyed, perhaps, by the club’s famed spirit. "Guangzhou have the top players," said the former Real Sociedad coach, "But when we have the ball we have the soul to do the job. There is still the away game and we have the confidence to come back and only a special team can do that. As for Guangzhou, they may need a miracle if they are to turn the table against us."