Asian football fans hoping for a little novelty will not be disappointed with the semi-final line-up of this season’s AFC Champions League, with all four contenders plotting to lift the coveted trophy for the first time. After 117 matches so far in this year’s edition, the teams still in contention are Saudi Arabian duo Al Hilal and Al Shabab, Zob Ahan from Iran and Korea Republic outfit Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, the only club left from the Far East.
Seongnam were joined by three more teams from Korea Republic in the quarter-finals, including holders Pohang Steelers, but now they alone can deliver a fifth consecutive title for Far East sides. As for the two Arab clubs, they will be dreaming of following in the footsteps of Al Ittihad, who were crowned Asian champions in 2005, while the mission for Zob Ahan will be to become the first Iranian representatives to claim continental glory.
Match of the day
Zob Ahan-Al Hilal, Wednesday 6 October 2010, Foolad Shahr Stadium, 17.00 (local time)
The most eagerly anticipated tie pits Al Hilal against Zob Ahan, with both out to break new ground by reaching the final. The Iranian side are making just their second ever appearance at this level, while Riyadh titans Al Hilal are disputing the competition for the sixth time in its current format. Having claimed the AFC Club Championship crown in 1992 and 2000, Al Hilal have set their sights firmly on adding to their continental trophy haul.
Their task will be anything but straightforward, however, as their hosts remain unbeaten in their last seven Champions League encounters on home soil. In addition, Al Hilal’s last trip to Iran yielded a 3-1 loss to Mes Kerman during the group stage in April.
Zob Ahan will nonetheless have to fare without experienced striker Mehdi Rajabzadeh, the 32-year-old having seen red during the second leg of their quarter-final contest with Pohang Steelers. In his absence, coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh will hope for much from dangerous trio Igor Castro of Brazil, Esmaeil Farhadi and Mohammad Ghazi.
The other match
Al Shabab-Seongnam, Tuesday 5 October 2010, King Fahd International Stadium, 20.00 (local time)
The tie between Al Shabab and Seongnam will hardly be lacking in intrigue either, and for the second time in less than a month a Saudi Arabian outfit will tackle a team from Korea Republic. For Al Shabab, a repeat of their 2-1 aggregate triumph over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors would be more than welcome, but they will be anxious not to lose at home as they did against the 2006 champions. Determined to take a lead into the second leg, the Middle Eastern club will have to cope without excellent Brazilian midfielder Camacho, who is suspended.
Their opponents are no less ambitious, meanwhile, and have not forgotten their 2004 final loss to Al Ittihad. Seongnam will once again turn to Colombian forward Mauricio Molina and his Montenegrin associate Dzenan Radoncic for their attacking threat, the duo having plundered more than half the team’s goals since the start of the knockout phase.
Player to watch
Few neutrals predicted that Zob Ahan would reach this far, but the Iranian club confounded expectations by ousting holders Pohang Steelers in the last round. Many put that feat down to the efforts of marksman Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, who fired the equaliser in the return leg and now boasts four goals to his name in the tournament this term.
What they said
"The medical and coaching staff will decide whether I play or not. I really hope that’s the case and I’m doing everything I can to make it happen. If I have to play on one leg, I will,” Yasser Al Qahtani, Al Hilal striker.