Wanderers, Al Hilal reach maiden final
History was made this week as Al Hilal and tournament debutants Western Sydney Wanderers stormed into the AFC Champions League final. The Saudi Arabians lost their return leg 2-1 at Al Ain but nevertheless progressed 4-2 on aggregate, while the Aussie underdogs beat FC Seoul 2-0 at home following a goalless draw in the South Korean capital.
The matchWestern Sydney Wanderers 2-0 FC Seoul
Despite the first-leg result, Seoul remained favourites to advance in Sydney. The two sides had previously impressed with the defensive astuteness and counter-attacking, but their second-leg showdown proved an open fight throughout. The Wanderers were the first to attack and it took them just three minutes to open the scoring, Croatian midfielder Mateo Poljak unleashing a powerful drive over Seoul keeper Yu Sanghun and into the net. Vitor Saba nearly doubled the lead when he fired wide with only the goalkeeper to beat. Stunned but undeterred, Seoul responded with captain Kim Jinkyu calling Ante Covic into a fine save with a close-range shot.
The second half began just as the first period had ended, with the home side firing on all cylinders as they sought a second goal. The Wanderers came close when Matthew Spiranovic's pass culminated with Kim Juyoung nearly putting through his own net. But the much-anticipated goal came on 64 minutes with Shannon Cole heading home off Labinot Haliti's inviting pass across the goalmouth. It ensured the Wanderers fairytale continue, with Tony Popovic’s team becoming only the second Australian side to reach the AFC Champions League final after Adelaide United in 2008.
The other attraction Al Hilal booked their first place in a continental final for the first time since winning their second AFC Club Championship in 2000. Entering the home game with a three-goal deficit to overcome, Zlatko Dalic's hosts came out like a house on the fire. Their efforts paid the dividends inside ten minutes, when Korean midfielder Lee Myungjoo opened the scoring with a glancing header off Omar Abdulrahman's inswinging free-kick. Inspired by the opener and cheered on by the home supporters, Al Ain heaped pressure on the visitors with top-scorer Asamoah Gyan and Miroslav Stoch constantly threatening. Al Ain continued to dominate after the restart, but it was Al Hilal that found the back of the net, Al Shamrani equalising on 66 minutes with his tenth goal of the campaign. The hosts' woes compounded four minutes later when Gyan, following a reckless foul on Salem Al Dawsari, received his marching orders. Kembo Ekoko would grab a late consolation and match-winner for the hosts, but Al Hilal went through remain on course to their first AFC Champions League title.
The player Despite losing against Al Ain, Al Hilal had the reflexes of Abdullah Al Sudairy to thank as they held off the aggressive hosts for an aggregate victory. The 22-year-old has, in fact, emerged one of the tournament's most outstanding goalkeepers. He entered the second leg on eight successive clean sheets and despite conceding two goals against Al Ain, he did produce a series of saves which repeatedly frustrated tournament Gyan and Stoch.
The stat 9 - Despite losing the second leg against Al Ain, Al Hilal boast the meanest defence of the last four, having conceded nine goals in 12 outings.
What they said Laurentiu Reghecampf, Al Hilal coach: "My players don't have experience playing in semi-finals and finals, but age does not mean experience. I will play with these players in the final as they are the best players. For us, reaching the final was the target for the club. We would like to win the league, the King's Cup and the AFC Champions League.”