Sunday, November 8, 2009

AFC Champions League Final - Pohang Steelers 2 vs Al Ittihad 1 - November 7, 2009

I've written about the Asian Champions League before, so I won't go into the details again here. The final was set for Tokyo's National Stadium, likely in anticipation that one of the two finalists would be from the J League. Although all 4 Japanese teams made the knockout tournament, the draws were not favorable to them. First Kawasaki knocked off Gamba Osaka only to face Nagoya in the quarters. With Kashima losing to FC Seoul in the round of 16, the J League was guaranteed just a single team in the semi-finals. It turned out to be Nagoya, who were thumped 8-3 on aggregate by Saudi side Al Ittihad. Meanwhile, Pohang Steelers from Korea advanced after defeating Qatar's Umm-Salal 4-1 on aggregate.

More on National Stadium

Although I visited National Stadium for Tuesday's Nabisco Cup Final, I didn't have much time to walk around. I rectified that today, spending about a half hour wandering. The stadium has two levels on the back stand, but only one in the main stand and end zones. You can complete the circuit on the lower level; the concourse does become slightly cramped behind the end zone seats. There's very little on the upper level concourse, just a few food and drink concessions. There's also a shortage of garbage cans, so at the end of the game, they are overflowing. In the States, most people leave their garbage at their seat, but here in Japan, most people try to throw it out when they leave. So it doesn't take long for the garbage can to fill up when there's not enough of them. I don't know why they just don't add a few more trash cans.

On the lower level, the main stand is where all the cool stuff is: displays, handouts and the like. Yesterday they had jerseys from all the competing teams which was neat. It's strange that they don't set up anything on the back stand since there's about twice as many seats there, but most people seem to enter by the main stand and then make their way around.

View from the middle of the back stand

There are plenty of food concessions, although I think they might change depending on the event. I didn't notice any sort of speciality items; it was mostly just Japanese fast food.

Overall, there's nothing particularly impressive about the stadium; it's a testament to functional design. Still, it's hard to believe it's 50 years old - it's still in good shape, and definitely worth visiting if there's a soccer game in town.

The Teams

Al Ittihad are based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and won their place in the Champions League by finishing 2nd in the Saudi Professional League in 2007-08. They went undefeated through the entire group and knockout stages, scoring 29 goals and yielding only 9 in their 11 matches.  I've known about this team since they won back-to-back Champions League titles in 2004-05. The latter victory garnered them an appearance in the 2005 Club World Championship, where they finished 4, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Sao Paulo.

Their most famous player is Mohammed Noor, who has played with the Saudi National team at the two previous World Cups. He scored a hat trick in the first game against Nagoya and has totalled 4 goals in the competition.

Pohang Steelers qualified by winning Korea's version of the FA Cup in 2008. They went undefeated through the group stages as well, including a critical victory over Kawasaki Frontale to take the group title. After a 6-0 thumping of Australian side Newcastle, they lost a 3-1 decision away to Uzbekistan side Bunyodkor in the quarter-finals. Needing a big win on the home leg to advance, the Steelers managed a 4-1 win in extra time to make it to the semi's, where they swept Umm-Salal. They tallied 22 goals while giving up only 8 during their 11 games.

They won back to back titles in 1997-98 but haven't done much internationally since then. Their top scorer is Brazialian Denilson, who had 7 goals in the tournament, good for 3rd overall.

The Game

I had no idea what to expect in the game today. Judging from the stats, I expected both teams to be fairly good on defense but to also attack quite a bit. So something had to give.

It didn't take Al Ittihad long to gain a chance. In the first minute, Pohang keeper Hwa-Yong Shin went wide to get a ball but overran it, giving Hicham Aboucherouane a chance from just off the goal line, but he sent it into the side netting.

The first 10 minutes were generally controlled by Al Ittihad; their crisp, quick passing forcing Pohang on the defensive. But the Saudi side couldn't find the magic opening and the half then degenerated into a lot of midfield play as both sides tried probing attacks with little success.

The highlight of the half was Aboucherouane rocket-like free kick from 35 yards out which Shin barely managed to deflect over the bar.

Zaid punches one away

In the first minute of the second half, Al Ittihad continued their assault as Amine Chermiti headed a ball that beat Shin but bounced off the crossbar and just beyond the reach of Noor, who had an empty net. Chermiti missed again a few minutes later when he was alone in front of the net, and Pohang countered. Denilson was fouled about 8 yards outside the box, setting up a great free kick opportunity. Byung Jung Noh took the kick and sliced a perfect low drive that went through the Al Ittihad wall and into the corner of the net past a diving Mabrouk Zaid. A shock goal and the Steelers had the lead.

Zaid saves an easy one

Nine minutes later, Pohang had another free kick, this time from the far right side. Jae-Sung Kim lofted one in and defender Hyung-Il Kim rose high to head it by a motionless Zaid. Kim fell to the ground with joy, while the Steelers fans went into a frenzy at the picture-perfect goal.

But Al Ittihad was not to be counted out. Just eight minutes later, Chermiti's header forced Shin back, where he was able to palm the ball down. Unfortunately, it landed at the foot of Noor, who blasted it home to cut the lead to 2-1 (all the goals are found on this video with ecstatic Korean announcers).

The last 15 minutes were all out as Al Ittihad tried to force extra time, but they were unable to find the equalizer and at the full-time whistle, Pohang's players celebrated their title.

Pressure on the Korean defense

Attendance was a decent 25, 743 consider no Japanese team was in it and the Giants were winning the Japan Series at the same time. Both sides had their supporters there, although naturally the Koreans had a larger contingent. To even things up, somebody was handing out plastic bibs that resembled Al Ittihad's uniforms - a cute idea.

Steeler Supporters

All-in-all, a great game, particularly the second half. These sudden-death matches bring out the best in both teams, and it's a lot of fun to watch them give it their all. Many might think this a meaningless title, but there was no doubt that the Steelers were overjoyed to lift the trophy. I look forward to this tournament again next year, and may try a road trip outside of Japan to catch a game or two.



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