Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors booked their place at December’s FIFA Club World Cup in Japan after defeating UAE's Al Ain over two legs in the AFC Champions League final. Noksekjunsa (Green Warriors) recorded a vital 2-1 home victory in the first leg courtesy of a Leonardo brace before Choi Kanghee’s charges held out for a 1-1 draw in Abu Dhabi, as the hosts were made to rue a missed penalty.
The Korea Republic side’s continental triumph comes 10 years after they were first crowned kings of Asia and will face old acquaintances Club America in the Club World Cup quarter-finals, a decade after both sides first met at the international club competition.
While they finished top of the pile in Group E in May, Jeonbuk were made to work hard in a tightly-contested four-team pot, pipping FC Tokyo to top spot on goal difference, despite losing to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning and Vietnam’s Becamex Binh Duong. They embarked on a valiant unbeaten run in the knockout stages, however, by first overcoming Australia’s Melbourne Victory in the Round of 16.
They then made their presence felt in the quarter-finals after emphatically defeating Shanghai 5-0 in their second leg quarter-final meeting before seeing off domestic rivals FC Seoul 5-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, where Brazilian duo Leonardo and Ricardo Lopes both scored twice over the two legs.
Though devastated to miss out on AFC Champions League glory at the final hurdle, Al Ain’s gifted playmaker Omar Abdulrahman could take some solace in being named as the tournament’s best player.
Meanwhile, FC Seoul’s Adriano finished top of the tournament's scoring list with 13 goals, equalling the record set by Muriqui at Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013. The hitman notched two hat-tricks, plus scored four against Thailand’s Buriram United, but was unable to prevent his side from exiting at the hands of Jeonbuk in the semi-finals. Behind the Brazilian goal-getter was fellow countryman Leonardo with ten goals.
Holders Guangzhou Evergrande failed to make it to the knockout stages after an extremely slow start to life in Group H. After failing to record a victory in their opening four matches, the 2015 champions registered two victories in as many games, but it was not enough to see them progress beyond the group stage. Meanwhile Pohang Steelers, the tournament’s most successful side with a record three titles, finished behind third-placed Guangzhou Evergrande at the foot of Group H.
*32* – The number of AFC Champions League goals that Jeonbuk’s evergreen frontman Lee Donggook has to his name, making him the all-time leading goalscorer in the competition. The 103-time Korea Republic international bagged five of them during the 2016 campaign.
What they said
"It’s our first title since 2006, I’m so happy. When we lost in 2011, I saw the fans were so dispirited, so winning the AFC Champions League is an unforgettable dream. Since coming back to Jeonbuk from the national team, we have been building this team so that we can win the AFC Champions League. Finally, it has happened. I want to thank the fans. This is for them," Jeonbuk coach Choi Kanghee, speaking after the final.
"I want to tell the fans I’m sorry about the result and I hope they will support us like they did today, with a full stadium. We promise them we will fight in every competition, for the AFC Champions League, in the domestic league, the cup and everything," Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman.