When Seongnam Chunma signed Mauricio Molina in July of last year, a majority doubted whether the Colombian playmaker would be able to justify the club’s cool $1.28m outlay. He had, after all, struggled in his three previous stints outside South America – with Mexican side Morelia, Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates and Serbian giants Crvena Zvezda – and was approaching 30.
Molina has emphatically answered those sceptics. Indeed, he scored ten times in the second half of last season’s K-League – a quarter of Seongnam’s goals in the entire campaign – to inspire them into the play-offs and the AFC Champions League 2010, in which he has duly excelled.
‘Mao’, as the man who inspired Independiente of Medellin into the Copa Libertadores 2003 semi-finals is known, broke the deadlock in a 2-0 victory over Kawasaki Frontale in their February curtain-raiser, before striking the only goal in a win at Beijing Guoan that guaranteed the South Koreans’ place in the knockout phase. He then posted a brace in a 3-0 defeat of Gamba Osaka in the last 16, and made the score-sheet in a 4-3 aggregate victory over Suwon Bluewings - the prize for which was a meeting with Saudi giants Al Shabab in the last four.
In the first leg in Riyadh, Molina scored twice to help the visitors carry a 3-2 lead into the last ten minutes, but a stirring comeback from the hosts means Seongnam will begin tomorrow's deciding contest at a one-goal deficit.
“We were doing really well, we were ahead three times, but then we just collapsed at the end,” Molina, who is also renowned as a brilliant creator of chances, told FIFA.com. “That was really disappointing but it’s difficult to play in Saudi Arabia, with the climate and the atmosphere. Overall though, forgetting what happened in the last ten minutes, it was a good result.
"We know that if we win by a goal we’ll go through (on away goals). I’m very confident. We’ve got a good team with some really good players, and we’ll have home advantage. We know they’ll come here and try to be very tight, but we’ve got the quality to break them down. It’s very important that we’re focused mentally.”
If Seongnam get past Al Shabab, they would be just one step away from lifting the AFC Champions League trophy and booking a place at December’s FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates – a country in which Molina feels he has a point to prove following a brief, unproductive spell there with Al Ain in 2004.
“It didn’t go well for me to be honest,” the 30-year-old explained. “I didn’t last long there. Things were very different from what I had been used to and I struggled to adapt. And on the pitch I didn’t manage to show my best football. When you’re not able to show what you can do in a country, it’s always a regret. So it would be great to return to the Emirates with Seongnam and show the people there my best football."
That is something the former San Lorenzo and Santos ace has been showcasing to Seongnam fans recently: “I think I’ve recaptured my best form, the form I was in at Independiente in 2003. I have the confidence of the supporters, the coaching staff and my team-mates, and that’s a good feeling. I have responsibility within the team, so I will do my best to help us get the result and reach the final.”
And although Molina knows eliminating Al Shabab and winning the AFC Champions League will be arduous tasks, he is already dreaming of lining up at the FIFA Club World Cup. “It would be a big dream,” he said.
“To play in a competition like that would be a big honour. To get the chance to play against Internazionale from Milan and Internacional from Brazil is something every player dreams about – they have some of the best players in the world.”