Once again a club from Korea Republic has uncovered the formula to success on the Asian continent as Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma emerged victors in the 2010 AFC Champions League, following on from Pohang Steelers’ triumph last year. The back-to-back success, coupled with Jeonbuk Motors’ all-conquering campaign in 2006, leaves the east Asians as the only nation to have captured the continental laurels on three occasions since the tournament’s re-launch in 2003.
Seongnam’s victory provides a fitting conclusion to a season dominated by the K-League participants. Spearheaded by Seongnam, a Korean quartet, which also featured Pohang, Jeonbuk and Suwon Bluewings, comfortably made it through to the Round of 16. There they each prevailed to storm into the last eight - the first time in the tournament history that four teams representing one country featured in the quarter-final schedule. Defending champions Pohang, as well as Jeonbuk, lost out to Zob Ahan and Al Shabab respectively, while Seongnam won the all-Korean affair against Suwon.
The seven-time K-League winners went on to shine in the semi-finals, edging Al Shabab on away goals to set up a final against Zob Ahan, who proved themselves a revelation reaching the Tokyo showpiece by beating Saudi giants Al Hilal both home and away. After seeing off a host of quality opponents en route, the emerging Iranian outfit found the final to be a step too far, with Seongnam proving their pedigree with a 3-1 victory for their second Asian title, having most recently triumphed in the 1996 Asian Club Championship.
Seongnam’s success extended east Asia’s hegemony to a fifth consecutive year. West Asia stole the show in the opening three editions, with Al Ain from UAE crowned the inaugural winners seven years ago, before Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad twice lifted the trophy. Jeonbuk broke the run four years ago with Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds and Gamba Osaka the next to conquer Asia, before Pohang and Seongnam followed suit.
Despite disappointment at the final hurdle, Zob Ahan’s surprise run suggests the rise of a new power in Asian club football. Playing in only their second continental appearance, the Iranian side made waves in the group phase, finishing ahead of big spending Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan, as well as two-time winners Al Ittihad to march into the second round. They then saw off compatriots Mes Kerman in the last 16, before ousting holders Pohang 3-2 on aggregate to seal a somewhat unlikely place in the last four.
The semi-final draw saw them pitted against strongly-favoured Saudi club Al Hilal, but Zob Ahan displayed resolute defensive qualities and tactical nous to outwit their opponents to claim victory in both ties. The runners-up finish equaling Sepahan’s achievement in 2007 as the best result by an Iranian club. Zob Ahan, who hail from Iran’s second largest city, Esfahan, are currently sitting atop the Iran Pro League seeking a maiden domestic title after finishing second in both of the last two seasons.
In a turbulent AFC Champions League campaign full of drama and intrigue, it was a pair of Saudi representatives who were among the most consistent performers before a semi-final exit. Claiming the most attention were Riyadh giants Al Hilal, who dispatched Bunyodkor 3-0 in the Round of 16 before scraping past tough Qatar side Al Gharafa 5-4 on aggregate. Al Shabab, for their part also claimed impressive scalps, overcoming Iran’s Esteghlal and K-League champions Jeonbuk to progress to the last four, where they were only narrowly edged out.
The biggest disappointment was undoubtedly the J.League representatives, none of whom progressed to the last eight. Only two, namely Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka, moved beyond the group phase but they proved no match for Korean opposition, losing out to Pohang and Seongnam respectively to bow out.
Elsewhere, Adelaide United of Australia, the surprise runners-up in 2008, opened up brightly by winning their group ahead of Pohang. In the subsequent knockout stage meeting with Jeonbuk, the Reds twice came from behind to draw level only to lose out 3-2 in extra time. Also falling to progress past the Round of 16 were China’s last representatives, Beijing Guoan, who succumbed to Suwon.
The 2010 edition of the AFC Champions League saw further growth in popularity with attendance figures up 32 per cent during the knockout stage. The attendance average of 18,960 was a marked increase on 2009, with the total number of spectators across the entire tournament reaching an aggregate of 1,372,787.