Korean clubs seek to continue dream run

With all of their four teams in the last eight, Korea Republic are seeking to retain the continental trophy as the 2010 AFC Champions League recommences this week after a four-month hiatus. Reigning champions Pohang and 2006 Jeonbuk Motors are among the list of hopefuls as the Koreans aim to become the first nation to achieve three AFC Champions league titles.

The east Asians have enjoyed a memorable 2010 at both club and international level. They are the first nation to boast a quartet of clubs in the quarter-final phase of the AFC Champions League, while the Taeguk Warriors progressed to the Round of 16 in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ - the first time they have achieved such a feat on foreign soil.

This week's first-leg action sees holders Pohang Steelers travel to Iran for a challenging tie against in-form Zob Ahan. Reigning K-League champions Jeonbuk Motors entertain Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab, while Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma does battle with Suwon Bluewings in an all-Korean affair. Elsewhere, the only non-Korean fixture pits Qatari champions Al Gharafa against perennial Saudi challengers Al Hilal, who are targeting their first Asian title since 2000.

The big match
Zob Ahan-Pohang Steelers
If Iran and Korea Republic’s age-old rivalry at international level is any indication, then this meeting is surely set to bring excitement to Asia’s premier continental competition. Zob Ahan, one of the tournament’s biggest surprise packages so far, swept past the likes of Al Ittihad and Bunyodkor to reach the Round of 16, where they edged out Mes Kerman by a solitary goal. They have further sharpened their form on the domestic stage, dispatching Teraktor 2-1 last Friday to top the Iranian league standings.

Contrasting to the opponents’ rich vein of form, Pohang has been struggling on the local stage losing out to Jeonbuk Motors 3-2 in their latest outing to be left languishing in the lower half of the table in ninth. However, an apparent steely determination to defend their Asian title has stood them in good stead in the continental campaign, and the club saw off the strongly-favoured Kashima Antlers in the Round of 16 with their talismanic forward, Brazilian striker Jose Mota, scoring the only goal. “The game against Zob Ahan is going to be a tough game for us but we are focused,” caretaker coach Park Chang-Hyun stated. “We want to win a trophy every year and the top aim this year is to defend our Asian title."

The other headliners
Most eyes in South Korea will be on Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Suwon Bluewings, the first all-Korean clash since the 2006 semi-final when Jeonbuk Motors defeated Ulsan Horang-i. The two sides’ latest encounter a fortnight ago ended in a goalless draw but hosts Seongnam can count on their home support while Suwon, go into the re-match on the back of a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Jeju United last Saturday.

Also disappointing over the weekend were Jeonbuk Motors, who went down 3-1 to Ganwon, ahead of their meeting with Al Shabab. The Saudis, who recently appointed former Uruguay and Qatar coach Jorge Fossati, are seemingly out of form as well having registered just one win from four starts on the domestic front.

It is five years since a club from the west half of the continent claimed the Champions League, with Saudi giants Al Ittihad reigning supreme in 2005 for their second consecutive Asian title. Perhaps this year’s biggest threat to ending that drought will be found among the winner of the Al Hilal and Qatar’s Al Gharafa match-up, with both clubs counting regional superstars in their respective line-ups. The latter, having won three domestic titles on the trot, are driven in attack by Iraqi ace-striker Younis Mahmoud, while Al Hilal can count on former AFC Player of the Year Yasser Al Qahtani.

Player to watch
With four goals in as many games, Al Qahtani’s form in front of goal has helped steer Al Hilal into the last eight, and again the 27-year-old’s influence is set to be key to the outcome of the match-up against the Qatar club.

What they said
”Seongnam had great success when I was a player. Now as the coach of Seongnam I want to repeat this again. I want to show our power to Asian fans.” Shin Tae-Yong, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma coach.

2010 AFC Champions League quarter-final first-leg fixtures
15 September
Al Hilal (KSA)-Al Gharafa (QAT)
Zob Ahan (IRN)-Pohang Steelers (KOR)
Jeonbuk Motors (KOR)-Al Shabab (KSA)
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (KOR)-Suwon Bluewings (KOR)