Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Zob Ahan of Iran set up another east-west final in the AFC Champions League after each recorded solitary-goal wins over Saudi Arabia duo, Al Shabab and Al Hilal. Despite entering the return match trailing 4-3, Seongnam made sure of their progress on away goals courtesy of Cho Dong-Keon's first-half goal. In the latter match, Igor Castro scored a lone strike at the King Fahd International Stadium to seal a 2-0 aggregate win over the heavily-favoured hosts Al Hilal.
Seongnam's hard-fought triumph ensured a K-League side in the final for a second consecutive year after Pohang Steelers overcame Al Ittihad for the Asian title in the previous edition. Meanwhile, Zob Ahan will follow in the footsteps of Sepahan who are the only previous Iranian club to progress to the tournament final. The two sides will battle it out in Tokyo on 13 November for the coveted crown and thus the right to represent Asia at December's FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
AFC Champions League semi-final, second-leg results
Al Hilal (KSA) 0-1 Zob Ahan (IRN)
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (KOR) 1-0 Al Shabab (KSA)
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 1-0 Al Shabab
Goals: Cho Dong-Keon 31’
In a heart-breaking night for the pair of Saudi representatives, Al Shabab emerged the first to bow out. Despite sweeping past the likes of Esteghlal and Jeonbuk Motors en route to the final, the west Asians' impressive campaign ended with them looking a shadow of their normal selves at the final hurdle. With the home side pushing hard from the outset, Al Shabab found themselves on the back foot for much of the opening half. Cheered on by vociferous support, Seongnam piled pressures on the opponents with Cho scoring what proved to be the decisive goal shortly after the half-hour mark.
Koh Jae-Sung hoisted a long ball from deep which was ferried into the area off Dzenan Radoncic. The first to pounce was Cho, who got himself ahead of goalkeeper Walleed Abdullah to slot home. With their backs against the wall, the visitors began to hit back after the interval with Nasser Al Shamrani close to equalising. At the other end, the hosts found holes in Al Shabab's rearguard on numerous occasions and they should have doubled the lead when Song Ho-Young shot straight at Abdullah with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Al Hilal 0-1 Zob Ahan
Goals: Igor Castro 55
Playing in only their second continental tournament, Zob Ahan were the undisputed underdogs going into the re-match against two-time Asian champions Al Hilal. Having stunned the likes of Bunyodkor and Pohang Steelers, the Iranian side once again showed their preference for dining on big fish. Desperate to reverse their one-goal deficit after the 1-0 defeat in Iran, Al Hilal were immediately on the front-foot but a well-prepared Zob Ahan did whatever they could to keep the hosts at bay, before Igor Castro silenced the home crowd five minutes from the hour-mark.
With the increasingly anxious hosts throwing everything forward, the visitors found the defence increasingly porous and their counter-attacking raids paid dividends ten minutes into the second half; Castro capitalising on a defensive error by Osama Hawsawi to seal the win. The Al Hilal defender failed to handle a cross by Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, with the clearance falling at the feet of a lurking Castro, who fired a low shot past goalkeeper Hasan Al Otaibi. The hosts’ woes deepened as Lee Young-Pyo was sent-off for a kick at Khalatbari 20 minutes from time as Zob Ahan bravely defended their lead for another famous victory.
Castro may have netted the only goal for Zob Ahan but he was indebted to the midfield promptings of Khalatbari, who proved the livewire throughout the game. The attacking midfielder threatened Al Hilal goal with a stinging shot shortly after the break before providing the cross which led to their match-winner.
What they said
"We spent the last three or four days training in order to stop Al Shabab’s attacks and we managed to do just that. I had a feeling that Cho would score and he played his role within the team perfectly," Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma coach Shin Tae-Yong