Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad will represent Asia at the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 next month after overcoming Al Ain 4-2 (5-3 on aggregate) in Jeddah on Saturday.
After the closely fought 1-1 draw in the United Arab Emirates ten days previously, the return match of the so-called "Gulf derby", was a much more one-sided affair with last year's winners, Ittihad, outplaying the 2003 champions, Ain, to hold on to their title.
An early free kick from Sierra Leone striker Mohamed Kallon settled the home side's nerves and skipper Mohammed Noor's 33rd-minute strike steadied them further. Although Shebab Ahmed pulled a goal back for Al Ain just after the interval, efforts from Joseph Desire Job and Ahmed Dokhi killed the game off as a contest with Luis Tejada's injury-time goal nothing more than a consolation.
The winning coach Anghel Iordanescu could not conceal his excitement after the on-pitch celebrations were over.
"Our secret for success was nothing but hard work. Eight months of hard effort has eventually bore fruits," said the euphoric former Romania national team boss. "I know sometimes the players have hated me but now I'm sure they love me and I love them too.".
Back with a bangAl Ittihad made only one change to the team that needed a Kallon penalty five minutes from time to earn a 1-1 draw in Al Ain. As expected the injured Ibrahim Sowed was replaced by Mohammed Noor, and the Saudi Arabia international midfielder would play a major part in his team's success, going on to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.
The 25,000 fans that had packed the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium three hours before kick off did not have long to wait before celebrating. With only two minutes gone, Ittihad won a free kick 20 yards out and Kallon, on loan from Monaco, curled the ball over the Al Ain wall and past goalkeeper Abdulla Mutaz into the top corner (1-0, 2'). Although the champions had joined the competition at the knockout stage, it was the African's sixth strike, earning him the title of topscorer.
Cheered on by the crowd, already in festive mood following the end of Ramadan - the Muslim holy month of fasting, Ittihad surged forward and Noor came close to doubling the lead on a couple of occasions.
At the other end, Nigerian striker Nwoha Oneykachi almost got his head to Abdulla Ali's cross after 27 minutes as the visitors were finally able to string some passes together. But just as Al Ain threatened, Ittihad doubled their lead when the impressive Noor nodded in Tcheco's free kick (2-0, 33').
The words of their Czech coach Milan Macala appeared to have an immediate effect as Al Ain came out for the second half looking far more composed. Tcheco's trip on Fahad Ali allowed Shebab to halve the score from the penalty spot (2-1, 55'), meaning the Purples needed just one more goal to reclaim the title.
But within a minute they were two goals behind again. Job, having his best match since joining on loan from Middlesbrough, met another superb delivery from Tcheco to silence the hundreds of Ain supporters that had made the long journey (3-1, 56').
Twelve minutes later, Noor, a player for the big occasion, charged through the visitors' defence before feeding right-back Dokhi, whose powerful strike found the net and Ittihad's fourth (4-1, 68').
Three goals down and with a little over 20 minutes remaining, Macala shuffled his pack, throwing everything forward in a desperate attempt to replicate their quarter-final comeback against Pas of Iran. Job was sent off and Panamanian striker Tejada, on as a second half substitute, did find the net but it was too late to dent the euphoria of the celebrations taking place both on and off the pitch (4-2, 90').
"We failed to contain their ferocious start and the goal seriously affected us," admitted Al Ain skipper Ali. "They played high-level football throughout the 90 minutes while we didn't perform to our potential."
Having successfully held onto their continental crown, Ittihad's gaze now turn towards the FIFA Club World Championship, where they will open their campaign against the African champions on 11 December in Tokyo. Noor, one of the most consistent performers in Asian football, could not hide his glee at the prospect: "Now we will get a chance to rub shoulders with the world's best. It is a dream we have had for a long time."