Those who thought Estudiantes would beat Pohang Steelers in their UAE 2009 semi-final were correct. Those who thought the South American champions would stroll to victory were not.
Ultimately, a Leandro Benitez double earned Alejandro Sabella’s troops a 2-1 success over a team that finished the game with eight men, and a place Saturday’s decider, where they will meet either Atlante or Barcelona. Sergio Farias's charges did themselves proud throughout, however, and Denilson’s deficit-halving strike will send them into the third-place play-off full of confidence.
The game kicked off to the immense sound of the Estudiantes supporters; the roar of their chants, the beat of their drums. And it took just ten minutes for Los Pincharratas to come mightily close to turning their devotees’ emotion from expectant to ecstatic.
Rodrigo Brana’s 20-yard strike, from an acute angle, appeared innocuous enough, but Shin Hwa-Yong spilled the ball. Instinctively, Mauro Boselli executed an overhead-kick, which came back off the crossbar before Benitez volleyed the rebound way over the bar.
Estudiantes continued to monopolise possession, but it was Pohang who were next to threaten the deadlock. Shin Hyung-Min floated an inviting cross into the box, which No Byung-Jun was just inches away from getting his head to with Pincha No1 Roberto Fernandez flapping. Ultimately, though, the ball beat everyone and drifted past the post for a goal-kick.
Denilson burst into life on 28 minutes, sprinting down the left wing and cutting inside his marker, only to have his ensuing cross blocked. Five minutes later, Kim Jae-Sung employed a sumptuous 360 turn, à la Zinedine Zidane, and fed the ball to Kim Jung-Kyum, whose 20-odd yard strike fell straight into the grateful arms of Fernandez.
Estudiantes then had two chances in quick succession just before the clock ran into injury time. First, Enzo Perez curled the ball over Shin Hwa-Yong but on to the roof of the net. Then, a canny Juan Sebastian Veron pass found Boselli, who turned sharply but fired straight at Shin.
There was still time for Alejandro Sabella’s side to manage one more shot on goal, and this time they made their opponents pay. Benitez generated rare, excessive curl on his 25-yard free-kick. Boselli jumped and although he failed to make contact, he did enough to deceive Shin, who remained rooted to the spot as the ball nestled inside his right-hand post.
Pohang emerged from the dressing room in determined mood and two minutes after the restart, the strength and craft of Denilson almost combined to create an opening. The Brazilian striker masterfully controlled a long ball on his chest, tricked his way past Leandro Debasato and cut the ball back from the byline. However, the stretching leg of German Re cleared the ball with the alert No poised to pounce.
Benitez doubled the Argentinian giants’ lead on 53 minutes. Veron crossed from the right, Perez beat Shin to the ball and his flick-on fell into the path of the Estudiantes No23, who made no mistake. Minutes later, Pohang found themselves at a numerical disadvantage when captain Hwang Jae-Won received his marching orders for a second bookable offence.
Estudiantes were now in complete control, and they began to delight their fans with handsome flicks and one-twos. Veron, unsurprisingly, was responsible for many.
For 15 minutes thereafter, Estudiantes retained possession with customary aplomb, but their calm receded greatly when Denilson reduced the deficit against the run of play on 71 minutes, slamming home with his left foot from inside the area.
Pohang sensed their opponents were there for the taking, but they swiftly lost their second player to a second yellow card, Kim Jae-Sung the villain on this occasion. When Shin Hwa-Yong was dismissed on 77 minutes and the eight-man South Koreans were forced to put Denilson in goal, it was apparent their brave challenge was over.
Overall, the result was a fair refection of the contest’s balance; the smiles on the faces of the neutrals in attendance was a fair reflection of what was an enchanting match.