The right to be crowned continental champions will go on the line this weekend in Tokyo with the 2010 AFC Champions League final featuring contestants with vastly differing pedigree. Saturday’s meeting between Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Zob Ahan of Iran is far from a David against Goliath match-up on the pitch, but it certainly pits one of the traditional heavyweights of the Asian game against a rising pretender.
Zob Ahan, who hail from Iran’s second largest city, Esfahan, are featuring in only their second Asian campaign. Seongnam, conversely, are one of Asia’s most accomplished clubs having bagged two continental titles after prevailing in the 1995 Asian Club Championship and the 1996 Asian Super Cup.
This campaign has seen the attack-minded Seongnam rack up 22 goals to top all 32 participating teams in the scoring stakes. Zob Ahan for their part stunned the likes of Saudi high-flyers Al Hilal and defending champions Pohang Steelers with their solid counter-attacking play.
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Seongnam-Zob Ahan, National Stadium, Tokyo, Saturday 13 November
The checklist of Zob Ahan’s victims en route to the final reads like a who’s who of Asian football. Firstly, big spending Uzbeks Bunyodkor and two-time winners Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia were dispensed with in the group stage. Then came a quarter-final win against title holders Pohang and a last-four victory against east Asian aristocrats Al Hilal. Now Zob Ahan are just 90 minutes from completing a fairytale run. The Iran Pro League leaders will no doubt take confidence from their most recent outing, a 1-0 win against Pas Hamadan, leaving them a point clear at the summit ahead of Persepolis.
No Iranian side have tasted continental success since 1993 when Pas Tehran lifted the Asian Club Championship trophy. Sepahan came the closest three years ago only to lose 3-1 on aggregate against Urawa Red Diamonds in the AFC Champions League final. The Iranians have left no stone unturned in their preparation, arriving five days early in the Japanese capital to help with acclimatisation.
For Seongnam, there are even greater expectations to live up to. A victory on Saturday will see Korea Republic retain the trophy and become the first country to have won the AFC Champions League on three occasions since its inception in 2003.
The K-League club have been free-scoring throughout the campaign including firing three unanswered goals past 2008 champions Gamba Osaka in the Round of 16. They will however be severely hampered by the loss of first-choice striker Dzenan Radoncic due to suspension. Also serving suspension is defensive midfielder Cheon Kwang-Jin, while left-back Hong Chul has this week featured with the national side at the 2010 Asian Games which is being played concurrently. Seongnam travel to Japan having most recently featured in a 2-2 draw at Gyeongnam last Sunday, a result which saw them finish fifth in the K-League.
Victory in Tokyo would be a triumph for coach Shin Tae-Yong who served Seongnam with distinction for many years as a player, including leading the team to the Asian Club Championship in 1996. Should they beat Zob Ahan, the former midfielder will become the first Korean to win the Asian title as both a player and coach. His opposite number, Mansour Ebrahimzadeh, is also no stranger to the big stage, having assisted Croatian head coach Luka Bonacic with Sepahan who finished runners-up in 2007.
With Radoncic ruled out, Seongnam's goalscoring burden will fall on the shoulders of Columbian striker Mauricio Molina, who has netted seven times in ten appearances. Defending the Zob Ahan net will be Shahab Gordan, who has showed impressive shot-stopping abilities throughout the campaign leaking just five goals across 11 matches.
3 - A win will give Seongnam their third Asian title and also see them become the third K-League side to win the AFC Champions League.
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To emulate their semi-final triumph over Al Shabab, Seongnam will wear new kits in the final - yellow jerseys and red shorts that were first introduced in the decisive second leg last month.
"We have a good chance of winning the title because our players are in the right frame of mind and they are a tight-knit unit. There is a real team spirit and a special bond within them," Zob Ahan coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh.