Triple crown the goal for Al Ittihad
© AFP

The name may be unfamiliar to fans outside of Asia, but Al Ittihad's record in domestic and Asian football in recent years has led to comparisons with Manchester United - even the word ittihad means united in Arabic.

The eight-time winners of the Saudi Premier League will be favourites to pick up their third AFC Champions League crown when they take on this year's Korea Republic K-League Cup winners Pohang Steelers on Saturday in Tokyo.

At the helm of the 2004 and 2005 Asian champions is none other than Gabriel Calderon, the former Argentinian international midfielder who played in the 1982 and 1990 FIFA World Cup™ finals. Calderon, who lost his job as Saudi Arabia coach despite steering the nation to the finals of 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, encourages his teams to take the game to opponents - much like current Argentina supremo Diego Maradona, with whom he linked up at Italy 1990, where La Albiceleste finished runners-up.

Calderon stating that his side side continued to press Nagoya Grampus in the second leg of their ACL semi-final, despite having routed the Japanese outfit 6-2 on home turf in the first game. "Both Al Ittihad and Nagoya are attacking teams who push forward and battle to the end," said Calderon.

"We don't know how to play any other way. Teams who just get men behind the ball tend to lose, which is why, despite having a substantial first-leg lead, we used our international experience and came out attacking." And it was an approach that clearly paid dividends, with the Saudi champions running out 2-1 winners on the night and 8-3 on aggregate.

Looking forward to Saturday night's decider against the unfancied Steelers, incidentally the first ACL final to be settled over one leg, Calderon talked about the importance of team unity. "This squad is very much a group and I don't want to talk about individual players," the journeyman player and former coach of Oman said. "All of the players are important - every one of the 24-man squad for the ACL final. Unity makes a team strong."

Al Ittihad arrived in Japan on 24 October in good time to face Nagoya in their semi-final four days later. They have remained in Japan since then in a bid to acclimatize to the cooler conditions ahead of their showdown with the Steelers, who play their football in a similar climate only one time zone away.

All of the players are important - every one of the 24-man squad for the ACL final. Unity makes a team strong.
Gabriel Calderon, Al Ittiihad coach.

Midfielder Manaf Abushgeer is especially thankful for the time to adjust. "The two countries have very different cultures, climates and culinary habits," Abushgeer said. "However, we've had camps in Europe and other places and we know all about the cold. We're used to having to wear warmer gear, and have no problem with this. We can play even better than we do back home."

Among the Saudi side's home-grown talent is one of the Middle East's most highly rated strikers, Naif Hazazi, and their inspirational midfielder and national team veteran, Mohammed Noor. As for their imported stars, perhaps the best know is Armine Chermiti, a Tunisian front-man who has played at the FIFA Club World Cup with his former outfit Etoile Sportive du Sahel.

Though Calderon has assembled a well-organised side that denies opponents almost any space, the Argentinian insists his men will be taking the game to his Korean opponents on Saturday. "We always play to win and nothing will change for the final," said the coach, and it is a warning Pohang Steelers will ignore at their peril.