AFC Champions League final: First-leg Preview

The potential crowning achievement of a man widely regarded as Asia’s most gifted playmaker or redemption for a scandal-riven club coming off a crushing domestic loss?

A return to former glories for the West or the continued dominance of the East?

The influence of a planeload of fans ferried for free by Emirati royalty or that of a pitch that has been described as ‘substandard’?

These are just some of the questions that await an answer as the first leg of the Asian Champions League final draws nearer.

UAE powerhouse Al Ain travel to South Korea with their star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman in imperious form to face a Jeonbuk outfit reeling after being docked nine points for historical match fixing and then losing the K-League on the final day of the season with those deductions factored in.

The visitors will be buoyed by an entire fleet of travelling supporters with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, reportedly offering a plane to transport the fans across to Korea ‘on behalf of UAE football’.

It looked for a long time though that one of the pre-tournament favourites may not even progress from the group stage and as late as midway through the second half of their third match it seemed that Al Ain were headed for a shock early elimination.

It took Asia’s best player, Abdulrahman, to haul them back into things as his 71st minute goal saw the Emirati side defeat Al Ahli 1-0 following back-to-back losses to open the section.

Omar Abdulrahman Al Ain

That prompted a run of two further wins and a draw as the club known as the ‘Boss’ then proceeded not to lose a single match in five knockout stage clashes to book their spot in the final for the third time.

The crowning glory for the team from the nation’s ‘garden city’ came when they won the inaugural edition of the ‘modern’ era back in 2003 and they’ll face another former champion here in the shape of 2006 winners Jeonbuk.

Having lost on penalties to Qatari outfit Al Sadd five years after that triumph, the fact that they’ve reached a third final in a decade speaks volumes to the sustained success of the club.

Much of the sheen was taken off those achievements though when it was announced that the club had been handed down the domestic point deduction in addition to a 100 million won fine for the actions of a club scout, when he was convicted for bribing match officials in 2013.

That ultimately cost Jeonbuk the domestic title this season in a campaign where they bettered their own mark for the longest run without defeat after going 33 matches without a loss but they’re stumbling at the worst possible time, having only won twice in their past seven outings in all competitions.

Both clubs have had a fairly limited preparation with a number of stars on international duty with the UAE and South Korea with some doubt over the participation of Abdulrahman after he was hobbling following his nation’s win over Iraq on Tuesday.

The ‘Greens’ of Jeonbuk have a relatively clean bill of health and after having held their pre-season camps in Dubai for the past two seasons also have a wealth of experience in playing teams from the region.

Both clubs are known as attacking forces, especially the Korean side (which has scored 26 goals in 12 matches), but given what’s at stake here it’s likely that the first leg will be played at a more measured tempo.

One thing is clear though and that’s whichever team emerges on top after next week’s second leg will become a two-time champion and join Chinese heavyweights Guangzhou Evergrande & Saudi Arabian hotshots Al Ittihad as the only clubs to have achieved that feat.

Scott McIntyre