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 play-off round kicking off on Wednesday, the-AFC.com 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.
Having looked at the first four editions of the tournament, dominated by West Asian teams who won three out of the inaugural four titles, the second part of this series revisits the years 2007 to 2010, a period that saw the power balance shift as East Asia completed a clean sweep of titles.
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2007 AFC Champions League: The Rise of New Powerhouses
The 2007 edition saw Adelaide United and Sydney FC enter the history books as Australia’s first representatives in the AFC Champions League a year after the country joined the AFC, although both teams were eliminated in the group stage.
The change of guards in Asian football was apparent from the start, with inaugural winners Al Ain eliminated at the group stage, two-time champions Al Ittihad missing out on the competition altogether and 2006 winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors exiting at the first hurdle despite starting at the quarter-finals stage.
UAE’s Al Wahda FSCC were West Asia’s top scoring side, romping to the top of Group A with 13 points and as many goals scored. Islamic Republic of Iran’s Esteghlal were disqualified from Group B after failing to submit their squad list on time, leaving three teams to contest for the group’s quarter-final ticket. Ultimately it was Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal who emerged top.
Finalists a year earlier, Syria’s Al Karamah proved their march to the final was not a fluke as they progressed as Group C leaders. Meanwhile, it was Sepahan who rounded off the West Asia quarter-finalists, topping Group D to advance from the group stage for the first time in their third continental appearance.
Over in the east, Urawa Red Diamond’s journey to continental glory would begin with an unbeaten run to the top of Group E. Also unbeaten were their countrymen Kawasaki Frontale who won Group F. There was late drama in Group G as Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma needed to win by a two-goal margin on the final matchday to pip China PR’s Shandong Luneng to the summit of the group, and they delivered in style, beating their opponents 3-0 to progress on head to head record.
In the knockout stages, Sepahan needed a penalty shootout to overcome Kawasaki Frontale and set up a semi-final date with Al Wahda who advanced past Al Hilal on away goals. The other side of the bracket was more emphatically decided with Seongnam and Urawa Reds both emerging 4-1 aggregate winners against the two finalists from the previous year, Al Karamah and Jeonbuk respectively.
There was little to separate Seongnam and Urawa in the first semi-final as they played out 2-2 draws in Japan and Korea Republic. Ultimately, it was a shootout at Saitama that would send the home side to the final after Choi Sung-kuk missed for the Koreans. Sepahan booked their final ticket more comfortably, brushing aside Al Wahda 3-1 in Isfahan before holding out for a goalless draw in Abu Dhabi.
A new nation was set to bring the AFC Champions League trophy home for the first time. Robson Ponte gave Urawa a valuable away goal in a 1-1 first leg draw in Isfahan. A week later Tournament MVP Yuichiro Nagai would put the Japanese in front and Yuki Abe would seal continental glory for Urawa Red Diamonds with a second goal late on; he would go on to lift the AFC Champions League trophy in the same colours a decade later.
2008 AFC Champions League: Trophy Stays in Japan
There were records galore in the 2008 edition of the AFC Champions League as Thailand’s Krung Thai Bank became the first team concede nine goals in one game, losing their opening match to Kashima Antlers 9-1, then incredibly beat Vietnam’s Nam Dinh with the same scoreline a month later.
Adelaide United learnt their lesson from a year earlier, becoming the first Australian team to reach the knockout stage after topping Group E. Islamic Republic of Iran’s Saipa reached the quarter-finals on their debut, and the pair were joined by Bunyudkor of Uzbekistan, Al Karamah, Qadsia SC and a Japanese trio in Kashima Antlers, Gamba Osaka and reigning champions Urawa Red Diamonds.
The latter duo dispatched Al Karamah and Qadsia respectively to set up an all-Japanese semi-final, while Kashima Antlers could not make it 3 out of 3 for Japan as they were beaten 2-1 on aggregate by Adelaide United. Led by Brazilian legend Rivaldo, Bunyodkor ran riot with a 7-3 victory against Saipa over the two legs.
Would-be MVP Yasuhito Endo oscored in both legs of the semi-final as Gamba Osaka emerged 4-2 winners to dethrone Urawa. Adelaide United left nothing to chance as a 3-0 first-leg win at home helped them book their place in the final despite a 1-0 reversal in Tashkent a fortnight later.
Gamba Osaka would prove to be too difficult for the Australians as they cruised to a 5-0 aggregate win in the final. Lucas, Endo and Michihiro Yasuda netted in a 3-0 win in Osaka and Lucas added two early strikes in Adelaide to bring home the coveted trophy.
2009 AFC Champions League: New Dawn
The 2009 edition marked a new era in the AFC Champions League history, with the group stage expanded to 32 teams, adding a fourth group to the East zone. Qualifying stages were also added for the first time, allowing teams from the likes of India and Singapore to compete for a place in the group stage.
Singapore Armed Forces became the first team from the city-state to reach the group stage after defeating Thailand’s PEA FC (Now Buriram United) in the preliminary round then Indonesia’s PSMS in the play-off.
A Round of 16 was introduced for the first time, and the automatic bye for reigning champions was abolished, meaning two teams from each of the eight groups would qualify to the knockout stage.
Al Ettifaq of Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s Umm Salal, Japan’s Nagoya Grampus Eight, Korea Republic’s FC Seoul and Australia’s Newcastle Jets all reached the knockout stage on their AFC Champions League debuts.
An all-Saudi Round of 16 encounter saw Al Ittihad overcome Al Shabab to book a quarter-final appointment with Pakhtakor who eliminated Al Ettifaq. Kawasaki Frontale knocked out Gamba Osaka only to find themselves against another fellow Japanese side, Nagoya Grampus Eight in the last eight.
Bunyodkor pipped IR Iran’s Persepolis and champions to be Pohang Steelers blew out Newcastle Jets 6-0 in the same round to face the Uzbeks in the quarter-finals. Umm Salal held onto a goalless draw and recorded a famous penalty shootout victory over Saudi Arabian powerhouse Al Hilal, while a shootout was also needed to separate FC Seoul and Kashima Antlers with the Koreans advancing.
Al Ittihad looked back to their best from the first half of the decade as they defeated Pakhtakor 5-1 in the two-legged quarter-finals. The margins were finer as Nagoya Grampus Eight beat Kawasaki Frontale 4-3 to face the Saudis in the semi-finals. Pohang Steelers needed nerves of steel to come from 3-1 down against Bunyodkor, matching the result and adding a fourth goal in extra time to win 5-4 on aggregate. Meanwhile Umm Salal’s unlikely march continued with a 4-3 aggregate win against FC Seoul.
Once more Al Ittihad proved too powerful for their opponents as a Mohammed Noor hat-trick gave them a 6-2 home win, rendering their 2-1 second leg reversal insignificant as they reached their third final in six years. Pohang Steelers were in control throughout the 180 minutes, beating Umm Salal 2-0 in Korea Republic and 2-1 in Doha.
Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium hosted the first-ever single-legged AFC Champions League final, and a goalless first half gave way to an exciting last 45 minutes in which tournament MVP No Byung-jun and Kim Hyung-il put Pohang Steelers in the driving seat and Noor’s late strike proved a mere consolation as the Koreans added to their two Asian Club Championship titles from the mid 1990s.
2010 AFC Champions League: Seongnam’s revenge
Al Ittihad’s iconic comeback from 3-1 down to defeat Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 6-3 on aggregate in the 2004 final remains one of the competition’s most memorable moments.
And if Pohang Steelers’ triumph over Al Ittihad five years later restored some pride for Korean clubs, there was still unfinished business for Seongnam themselves as they sought to follow Steelers in pairing Asian Club Championship and AFC Champions League trophies in their cabinet, and 2010 was the year they delivered.
Of the six AFC Champions League winners hitherto, only Urawa Red Diamonds missed out on the 2010 edition, but by the end of the group stage both Al Ain and Al Ittihad had been eliminated. Meanwhile Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Gamba Osaka and Pohang Steelers all finished second in their groups.
Single-legged Round of 16 ties produced a record tally of four Korean quarter-finalists, but only one would survive this stage. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors failed to reverse a 2-0 first leg defeat to Al Shabab, losing 2-1 on aggregate, and Pohang Steelers’ title defence was ended by Zobahan. An all-Korean quarter-final saw Seongnam cruise to a 4-1 thumping of Suwon Samsung Bluewings who could only muster a 2-1 win that tasted like defeat in the second leg.
The only Korean-free quarter-final tie saw Al Hilal survive a scare to defeat Al Gharafa 5-4 having seen their first leg 3-0 margin clawed back in Doha before they could score twice in extra time, losing the second leg 4-2 but progressing to the semis.
Seongnam’s penultimate challenge saw them score three crucial away goals in a 4-3 defeat to Al Shabab before getting the all important winning goal to settle the second leg 1-0 and advance to their second final of the decade.
Awaiting them were Zobahan who became the second Iranian team to reach the AFC Champions League final after defeating Al Hilal 1-0 twice.
In the second consecutive final to be hosted by the Japanese capital Tokyo, it was Australian defender Sasa who opened the scoring for Seongnam at the half-hour mark. Cho Byung-kuk doubled their tally and Mohamed Reza Khalatabari’s 67th minute deficit-halver was deemed insignificant when Kim Cheol-ho put the game beyond doubt with seven minutes to go.
Seongnam celebrated a famous victory, conquering the ghosts of 2004 and ensuring Korea Republic became the first nation to have three different AFC Champions League winners.
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