5 ACL Final Icons
Kuala Lumpur: The 2019 AFC Champions League final, that kicks off on saturday in Riyadh, will be a platform for the two best club sides in Asia to do battle in the Continent's premier showpiece event.
The players from Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds and Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia will have the chance to emboss their name on the proud history of the AFC Champions League, joining a list of legends who wowed the Continent.
Ahead of the first leg clash at King Saud University Stadium, we look back at five of those who seized their moment in the spotlight and ensured they would become AFC Champions League Final icons.
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Salem Johar (Al Ain)
The very first AFC Champions League final was always going to be a special occasion. The 2002–03 edition of Asia's annual Continental club football competition saw the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners' Cup and Asian Super Cup combine to become the inaugural AFC Champions League.
Sixteen teams from 11 Member Associations took part in the maiden competition and, after 28 exciting matches, the number of participants was reduced to just two: Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates and BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand.
The final was set for October 3, 2003 at Al Ain's Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.
It was there, at the Garden City, that Salem Johar inscribed his name in AFC Champions League folkore when he scored the final's first-ever goal, seven minutes before half-time. And it was some strike, too.
Running onto the ball from at least 25 yards out from goal, Johar unleashed a first-time left-foot rocket that screamed past the BEC Tero Sasana 'keeper, hit with such venom that despite the custodian getting a hand to the ball there was no chance of saving it.
Mohammad Omar added a second with 15 minutes of the game remaining to give Al Ain a 2-0 lead heading into the return meeting in Bangkok, where a Therdsak Chaiman penalty was not enough to prevent Johar and his teammates lifting the inaugural title.
Mohammed Noor (Al Ittihad)
A man who needs little introduction, Saudi legend Mohammad Noor has appeared in and scored in three AFC Champions League finals for Al Ittihad, winning two of them, in 2004 and 2005.
While lifting the title on home turf after seeing off Al Ain at the 2005 climax will have tasted particularly sweet, there's little doubt that the incredible comeback that club captain Noor helped inspire at the 2004 showpiece will remain embedded in the memory of all Asian football fans.
After Al Ain had claimed the inaugural AFC Champions League title, it was Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic's Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma who would face off to become the tournament's second champions. And it began poorly for Noor's side; a 3-1 first leg defeat to in front of their own support in Jeddah stunning the West Asians.
A two-goal advantage, three away goals and over 30 degrees of difference in temperature between Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium and the second-leg venue of Seongnam Stadium, the Tigers were given little chance of a comeback.
And yet, somehow, something special happened. First-leg goalscorer Redha Takar netted with another thumping header from an Al Ittihad set-piece midway through the first half that gave the visitors the all important opening goal before Hamzah Idris netted in injury time from close range to level the scores on aggregate at the break.
Hey @ChampionsLeague, we had fun watching your #Remontada! But we believe the greatest comeback was when @ittihad_en lost 3-1 at home and came back with a 5-0 in the final 🔥!#FlashBackFridayhttps://t.co/ZUjVCKndZS— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) May 10, 2019
In the second half, Seongnam were forced to attack and played into the hands of a counter-attacking Al Ittihad and up stepped Mohammed Noor with a captain's performance, tucking the ball past Seongnam goalkeeper Yang Young-min 10 minutes after the re-start to hand his side the lead on aggregate.
With the Seongnam defence in disarray, Noor then added a fourth with 12 minutes remaining before Manaf Aboshgair completed the rout deep into stoppage time with a curling effort.
Yuichiro Nagai (Urawa Red Diamonds)
The 14th of November, 2007. Saitama Stadium. The AFC Champions League final: Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds versus Sepahan of IR Iran. Twenty-two minutes on the clock.
Urawa's number 9 Yuichiro Nagai, who had entered the pitch firmly believing he would score, got his chance.
Brazilian playmaker Robson Ponte sent a ball in behind, and having beaten the offside trap Nagai found himself bearing down on Abbas Mohammadi’s goal.
“Ponte’s pass took a deflection on the way through which changed its course a little and threw off the opponent, and because I had that confidence of being able to score I wasn’t at all flustered and just hit it.”
Things went just as Nagai had imagined, and the shot rifled into the back of the net, provoking jubilant scenes as Saitama Stadium erupted.
Yuki Abe added a second goal in the 71st minute to wrap up a 3-1 aggregate win to crown Nagai, who was also named tournament MVP, and Urawa as kings of Asia.
“It seems like a story from a long time ago now,” Nagai concludes of that famous night. “It’s already been 10 years and the time has flown by. For me personally, I’ve continued to play in the decade since we won the ACL, but that was truly the greatest moment.”
Ante Covic (Western Sydney Wanderers)
Goalscorers have been given their due so far, but how about some well-deserved recognition for one of the most memorable performances at the other end of the pitch? Ante Covic, the only goalkeeper to earn the tournament's MVP award, put on a stellar display for Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers against Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal in the 2014 AFC Champions League final.
Having won the first leg 1-0 courtesy of a Tomi Juric strike, the Wanderers were on the back foot from kick off in the return meeting in Riyadh as Al Hilal quickly asserted their control over the game, as they did in the first leg, and attacked in waves. But try as Al Hilal might, they simply could not find a way past Covic in goal.
The crowning moment for the 39-year-old came with just five minutes remaining.
Yasser Al Shahrani and Mohammad Al Shalhoub combined nicely down the right to get in behind the Wanderers scrambling defence, with Al Shahrani cutting the ball back perfectly for veteran striker Yasser Al Qahtan,i who made good contact as he attempted to side-foot the ball home. It looked for certain that Al Hilal would bring the tie level on aggregate.
But Covic would not be denied, producing one of the most iconic saves in Asian club competition.
“We work a lot on cut backs and how to react to them and it was just one of those where I had to turn around and just go,” a proud Covic recalled.
“Those types of saves where the ball is behind you, it’s so easy to have a touch and you lose your wrist and it trickles into the back of the net. When it hit the wrist I didn’t know if it was enough, and when I saw it walk past that post I remember that feeling was one of the best I’ve had in football.
“I don’t know if I could say that was my best save, but in that moment that was the best moment of my career.”
Elkeson (Guangzhou Evergrande)
Brazi-born forward Elkeson had already enjoyed one AFC Champions League final moment to remember two years before he took the headlines at the 2015 showpiece. Just a few months into his first Continental campaign, the then 24-year-old had maintained his prolific form from the previous rounds to net in both legs of the 2013 final as Guangzhou Evergrande defeated Korea Republic's FC Seoul on away goals.
While that title was undoubtedly of huge significance as it marked the first Asian title for a Chinese club in 23 years, the 2015 final - decided by just one memorable strike over 180 minutes of football - can be argued to be Elkeson's crowning moment.
A goalless first leg in Dubai against the UAE's Al Ahli meant things were poised on a knife edge at Tianhe Stadium on 21 November, 2015. Neither side were able to make the breakthrough in the first half, either, but as the clock began to edge towards the hour mark, Elkeson changed the narrative.
Receiving the ball inside the area from Zheng Long, the number 9's wonderful flick saw him nutmeg marker Salmin Khamis with his back to goal, swivelling at speed to poke into the bottom right corner and bring Tianhe Stadium to its feet in wild celebration.
Although it was to be the only goal the 2015 AFC Champions League final would see, it was a strike worth the price of admission alone, and deserving of winning any championship.
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