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AFC Champions League: Through the Years (2003-06)

Kuala Lumpur: As fans of Asian football prepare for the return of the AFC Champions League, with the 19th edition of the continental competition's playoff round kicking off on Wednesday, looks back at the tournament's history. 

A record 40 teams split into 10 groups will take part in the 2021 AFC Champions League as the competition continues to go from strength to strength, showcasing Asia's finest teams and numerous world-renowned players.

Almost 20 years ago, Asian football moved into an exciting new era as the AFC Champions League saw the merger of the Asian Club Championship and Asian Cup Winners' Cup in 2002-03, and that's where we start our look back at the tournament through the years.

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2002-03 AFC Champions League: Al Ain make history

Sixteen teams from 11 countries entered into the inaugural group stage, among them future champions Al Hilal SFC, Al Sadd SC, Kashima Antlers and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, although none of that quartet would make it into the knockout rounds.

With just one team from each group advancing into the semi-finals, Thailand's BEC Tero Sasana sealed their spot after Therdsak Chaiman struck late to down Shanghai Shenhua, while Dalian Shide came from a goal down to beat Seongnam in their final group game and take first place.

In the West, Emirati giants Al Ain had few problems, winning three from three to progress, while Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor also marched on with a perfect record and did so without conceding a goal.

Therdsak was again the star for Tero Sasana in the semi-finals as the Thai international's late goal in a 3-1 win over Pakhtakor in Bangkok ultimately proved decisive, despite a late Server Djeparov effort in Tashkent ensuring a frantic finish in the Uzbek capital.

The other semi-final between Al Ain and Dalian saw an incredible 13 goals over two legs with Al Ain taking a two-goal advantage to China PR after a 4-2 first-leg win, but there was plenty more drama to come.

With 25 minutes remaining, Dalian were 2-1 down but stormed back to take a 4-2 lead. With extra time looming, however, Farhad Majidi proved the hero as the Iranian drilled home from outside the box to secure a 7-6 aggregate win and a place in the final.

With the Emiratis hosting the first leg, Salem Johar claimed the honour of scoring the first-ever AFC Champions League final goal and it was fitting of the occasion, with the midfielder firing in a stunning effort from outside the box to give his side a one-goal lead at the interval.

Al Ain then ensured they would take a commanding lead to Bangkok as Omar Mohammed struck with 15 minutes to play after the visitors had been reduced to 10 men.

Tero Sasana came out firing at Rajamangala Stadium a week later, with Thersdak twice going close in the first half, before he eventually opened the scoring from the spot on the hour. It was not to be, though, as Al Ain held out to become the inaugural AFC Champions League winners.

2004 AFC Champions League: Tigers roar

After the success of the first edition, the competition expanded to seven groups the following year, with a quarter-final round also introduced and some of today's biggest Asian sides joining the party, among them Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Yokohama F. Marinos and Al Ittihad.

Pakhtakor and Dalian again progressed from the group stage to secure second successive knockout round appearances, while Emirati duo Sharjah and Al Wahda also advanced, joining compatriots Al Ain, who gained automatic entry into the quarter-finals as holders.

Elsewhere, Al Itithad, Jeonbuk and Seongnam all edged through to ensure a mouthwatering last-eight line-up.

Al Ain's dream of retaining their title was emphatically ended by Jeonbuk, who dealt them a 5-1 aggregate defeat, while another Korean side scoring for fun were Seongnam, who netted 11 times over two legs to oust Sharjah. A strong second-leg performance saw Pakhtakor past Al Wahda, meanwhile, and Al Ittihad narrowly overcame Dalian.

There was no shortage of drama in the semi-finals with Al Ittihad scoring late in the first leg to take a 2-1 lead to Jeonju. Jeonbuk fought back to go two up on home soil only to concede twice after the interval, the second a last-minute goal by Osama Al Muwallad that took the Saudi side through.

After falling at the semi-final stage a year earlier, Pakhtakor suffered the same fate in 2004 when, after a goalless draw in Seongnam, they lost 2-0 in Tashkent as the K League team sealed a place in the final.

The 2004 finale remains arguably the most incredible story from an AFC Champions League final, and undoubtedly the finest comeback. After Redha Tukar had cancelled out Denis Laktinov's opener in Jeddah, Seongnam scored twice in the final 10 minutes through Kim Do-hoon and Jang Hak-young to return home with one hand on the trophy.

But the Saudi side had other ideas. Tukar put them one up in the second leg and Hamzah Idris ensured they took a two-goal lead into the interval to leave them needing just one goal to take charge of the contest.

With the hosts' confidence shattered, Al Ittihad went for the jugular, Mohammed Noor netting a brace and Manaf Abushgeer rubbing salt into the Seongnam wounds in stoppage time as a 5-0 victory secured a 6-3 aggregate win and the title.

2005 AFC Champions League: Al Ittihad go back-to-back

The first two champions of the AFC Champions League were on red-hot form by the time the 2005 edition came around, and the two would ultimately have a date with destiny in the showpiece event.

Al Ain again reached the knockout rounds after a 3-2 win over Sepahan in their final group game, while former Asian champions Al Sadd and PAS Tehran were among the teams to join them there.

Holders Al Ittihad, who entered at the quarter-final stage, had few problems against China's Shandong Luneng, securing an 8-3 aggregate win, although Al Ain were made to work hard for their place in the semi-finals, edging past PAS on away goals after a late Helal Saeed brace secured a 4-4 aggregate draw.

Al Ain were pitted against Shenzhen Jianlibao – who overcame Al Ahli Saudi in the quarter-finals – in the last four and all but secured their place in the final with an emphatic 6-0 first-leg win, before playing out a goalless draw in China.

Conquerors of Al Sadd, Busan IPark were the latest Korean team to attempt to get the better of Al Ittihad but, just like Jeonbuk and Seongnam before them, they fell to the Jeddah giants.

For the second successive year, Al Ittihad scored five without reply in Korea Republic before two goals from Sierra Leone star Mohamed Kallon rounded off a resounding 7-0 win to return to the showpiece event.

Al Ain struck first in the final at a packed Tahnoun bin Mohamed Stadium, Ali Msarri prodding in from close range early in the second half but Kallon struck from the spot with five minutes remaining as the first leg ended all square.

Kallon then brought Prince Abdullah al-Faisal Stadium to its feet just two minutes into the return meeting, curling home a sumptuous free-kick, before Noor put the Saudis two up.

Al Ain pulled one back from the spot but Joseph-Desire Job and Ahmad Al Dhoki put the result beyond doubt as the eventual 4-2 win sealed a 5-3 aggregate victory and successive titles. Al Ittihad remain the only side to retain the AFC Champions League.

2006 AFC Champions League: The trophy heads east

For three successive years Asia's most prestigious club trophy had remained in West Asia but, for the first time, East Asia would rise to the fore in 2006 as the other side of the continent began a period of dominance.

Korea Republic sides had gone deep into the tournament in the two previous years, and both Jeonbuk and Ulsan Hyundai booked their place in the quarter-finals this time round, while Al Ain again returned to the knockout rounds and Al Karamah became Syria's first representative in the last eight.

And it was the Homs side who would end Al Ittihad's dream of a 'three-peat' as a stunning 4-0 second-leg win, having lost the first meeting 2-0 in Jeddah, saw Al Karamah advance after extra time.

There was no joy for Saudi Arabia's other team in the last eight as Al Shabab went down 6-0 in Ulsan and promptly exited. Jeonbuk were made to work harder for their semi-final spot but eventually overcame Shanghai Shenhua 4-3 on aggregate while Kuwait's Qadsia SC completed the line-up after defeating Al Ain.

An all-Korean affair pitted Jeonbuk and Ulsan together in the semi-final, with Ulsan edging the first leg 3-2 in Jeonju. However, Choi Kang-hee's Jeonbuk roared back in the return meeting, with a resounding 4-1 win securing their first appearance in the final.

The other semi-final witnessed a nervy affair between Al Karama and Qadsia, meanwhile, as the first leg in Homs ended scoreless to leave the return meeting in Kuwait City on a knife edge. A solitary Aatef Jenyat goal was enough to win it for the visitors as their remarkable run continued.

A new name would be written on the AFC Champions League trophy as Jeonbuk and Al Karamah aimed to become the first sides from their respective countries to win the competition, and goals from Yeom Ki-hun and Raphael Botti in Jeonju put the K League club well on their way.

However, an intimidating Khalid ibn al-Walid Stadium in Homs had proved too much for many a team in 2006 and Jeonbuk would not have it easy. They managed to hold out until the interval in the second leg but then goals from Iyad Mando and Mohannad Ibrahim sent the 40,000 crowd into raptures as suddenly the title was in their sights.

But, as the clock ticked towards extra time, Jeonbuk's Ze Carlos broke Syrian hearts as he headed home at the back post with five minutes remaining to stun those in attendance and secure a first AFC Champions League title for his side.

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