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AFC Champions League: Through the Years (2011-14)

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.

Three of the inaugural four titles went to West Asian sides, then the power shifted with clubs from Japan and Korea Republic splitting the following four between 2007 and 2010. Next up we look at a period that saw a return to two legged finals and one of the all-time greatest sporting shocks.

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2011 AFC Champions League: Al Sadd get Qatar’s first title

With title holders Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma missing out on the 2011 AFC Champions League, Al Ittihad were set to be the only club in the competition’s history to have successfully defended their title and 2011 was the time for a new champion.

Two decades after winning the Asian Club Championship, Qatari powerhouse Al Sadd SC had to start for continental glory from the very beginning, and they showed they meant business with a 5-1 thumping of Syria’s Al Ittihad followed by a 2-1 victory over India’s Dempo SC in the playoffs.

In the group stage, Al Sadd showed their dominance, topping the group unbeaten. A feat that was also matched by not one, but two teams from Group H as Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Kashima Antlers advanced with 12 points each. Meanwhile, there was disappointment in Tehran as both the city’s traditional clubs – Esteghlal and Persepolis – were eliminated at the group stage.

The Round of 16 saw Saudi arch-rivals Al Hilal and Al Ittihad lock horns and it was the latter who emerged 3-1 winners in a classic encounter. Elsewhere the first-ever Osaka derby in the AFC Champions League went Cerezo Osaka’s way with a 1-0 win over neighbours Gamba Osaka and three Korean teams reached the quarter-finals.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors reversed a 4-3 first-leg defeat to beat Cerezo Osaka 6-1 in the second leg of their quarter-final, while FC Seoul’s 1-0 win in the return leg was not enough to prevent Al Ittihad from reaching the final four thanks to their 3-1 first leg triumph. Suwon Samsung Bluewings needed extra time to dispatch Zobahan and Al Sadd rounded off the semi-finalists at the expense of Islamic Republic of Iran’s Sepahan.

In the penultimate test, it was 2006 champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors against their predecessors on the throne Al Ittihad. The Koreans came away from Jeddah with a 3-2 win and their opponents hopes of repeating the miracle of 2005 were dashed in Jeonju after a first-half brace from Eninho ensured Jeonbuk’s passage to the final.

It was also a brace that settled the other semi-final. Senegal international Mamdou Niang got his double in the first leg in Suwon and Al Sadd stood their ground in Doha despite an early Oh Jang-eun goal giving Suwon Samsung Bluewings hope of a comeback that never was.

For the first time in AFC Champions League history, a single-legged final was played in one of the finalists home. A draw decided that it would be Jeonbuk’s Jeonju World Cup Stadium that would host the game, and it was a final that truly had it all.

Eninho put Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the lead before an own goal gifted Al Sadd the equaliser at the half-hour mark. Ivorian winger Abdul Kader Keita thought he had settled matters with his second-half strike but as the game looked headed to the final whistle, Lee Seung-hyun revived the hosts’ hopes with an added time leveller.

Half an hour of extra time could not separate the two sides and it was down to a penalty shootout. Al Sadd’s Korean midfielder Lee Jung-soo missed from the spot against his former team, but that would ultimately be rendered unimportant as both Kim Dong-chan and Park Won-jae missed their penalties and the night belonged to the Qataris who became the first – and to date the only – Qatari side to win the competition and joined a select few who have won both the Asian Club Championship and the AFC Champions League.

2012 AFC Champions League: Ulsan Hyundai join the winners

The next edition of the AFC Champions League saw plenty of firsts; the two finalists Ulsan Hyundai and Al Ahli Saudi FC were contesting a continental final for the first time in their history, and future champions Guangzhou Evergrande made their AFC Champions League debut. There were also first knockout stage appearances for UAE duo Al Jazira and Baniyas.

One thing that remained an AFC Champions League staple was the reigning champions inability to defend their title. Indeed, Al Sadd had missed out on the 2012 edition altogether after failing to finish in the top four of the Qatar Stars League in the season that saw them conquer the continent.

Al Jazira ran riot in Group A, collecting 16 points and scoring 18 goals as former AC Milan forward Ricardo Oliveira netted a group stage record of 10 goals. He would go on to add two more in the knockout stages and win the top scorer award despite his team exiting at the Round of 16.

There was a record five teams going unbeaten in the group stage as Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, Ulsan Hyundai, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and Nagoya Grampus Eight all advanced unscathed. Eventual finalists Al Ahli only finished second in their group behind Sepahan.

The biggest-ever result in the AFC Champions League Round of 16 saw Al Hilal demolish debutants Baniyas 7-1. Al Ahli needed penalty shootouts to overcome Al Jazira after a thrilling 3-3 draw and Sepahan triumphed over Esteghlal in an all-Iranian Round of 16 tie. On the other side, Ulsan Hyundai survived a late scare to overcome Kashiwa Reysol 3-2 and continue their march to the final.

The two finalists showed their true colours in the quarter-finals, with Al Ahli cruising to a 4-1 victory over Sepahan and Ulsan Hyundai making light work of Al Hilal with a 5-0 aggregate win. Guangzhou Evergrande’s maiden continental adventure was ended by Al Ittihad’s 5-4 win. Two thrilling encounters saw nine goals scored as Bunyodkor edged Adelaide United 5-4 to round off the semi-finalists.

A Jeddah derby for a place in the final saw Al Ittihad take a 1-0 lead in the first leg only to be clawed back by Al Ahli’s 2-0 on the same ground two weeks later, Brazilian striker Victor Simoes netted late on to win it for Al Ahli and deny Al Ittihad a record fourth AFC Champions League final appearance.

The task was much more straightforward for Ulsan Hyundai who came away from Tashkent with a comfortable 3-1 win and added two more goals at home to defeat Bunyodkor 5-1.

For the second year in a row, the coin toss for deciding the final’s host venue favoured a Korean side and so it was in front of 40,000 fans in Ulsan that the home side celebrated a famous 3-0 victory.

An early goal from defender Kwak Tae-hwi was followed by two second-half strikes from Rafinha and Kim Seung-yong as Ulsan Hyunday became Asian champions for the first time in their history - a title they would come back to win again in Doha, but more on that in another part of this series.

2013 AFC Champions League: Rise of Guangzhou

Once more, the champions surrendered their trophy before the competition even began as Ulsan Hyundai failed to qualify to the 2013 AFC Champions League. In fact, only four of the eight former champions were present in this edition of the competition - Al Ain, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Pohang Steelers and Urawa Red Diamonds.

Five teams made their debuts in the group stage of the 2013 edition, and it was only Qatar’s El Jaish out of them that made it into the next stage. Led by the tournament’s top goalscorer Muriqui, Guangzhou Evergrande cruised to the top of their group with the Brazilian scoring in all but one of their group stage matches.

By the time the quarter-finals rolled around, all former champions had been eliminated. Al Ain, Urawa Red Diamonds and Pohang Steelers bowed out at the group stage and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors following suit in the Round of 16 after a 5-2 aggregate defeat by Kashiwa Reysol.

FC Seoul pipped Al Ahli to a 2-1 win in the quarter-final and IR Iran’s Esteghlal beat Thailand’s Buriram United 3-1. Kashiwa Reysol defeated Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab on away goals after drawing the two legs 1-1 and 2-2, while Guangzhou Evergrande emphatically brushed aside Lekhwiya 6-1.

There was no stopping Guangzhou as they put eight goals past Kashiwa Reysol in the semi-final, winning 4-1 and 4-0 with Muriqui getting a brace in each leg.

In the other semi-final clash, FC Seoul went into Azadi Stadium for the second leg with a 2-0 home advantage and even as Ha Dae-sung looked to have put the game beyond doubt with a 37th minute goal, Esteghlal rallied late with two second-half goals, but with 10 minutes to go Kim Jin-kyu converted from the spot to confirm FC Seoul’s place in the final.

The coin toss was now done away with and the final was back to being played in two legs. It would indeed prove to be Guangzhou’s biggest challenge yet as they looked to lift the coveted trophy.

Sergio Escudero handed FC Seoul an early lead on home soil, but Elkeson and Gao Lin scored either side of the halftime break before Dejan Damjanovic brought FC Seoul back into the game, setting up an open second leg.

After a nervy opening half in front of a packed Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, the two sides exchanged blows with just five minutes separating Elkeson’s opener and Damjanovic’s equaliser in the second leg. A 1-1 draw at home was enough for coach Marcello Lippi’s men to snatch the trophy on away goals and become the first-ever Chinese team to win the AFC Champions League.

2014 AFC Champions League: The Miracle of Sydney

If there was ever a defining tale that captures the magic of the AFC Champions League, that would be the minnow’s fairy tale achieved by Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers in their debut continental campaign.

The New South Wales club were founded just 24 months before that moment they lifted the AFC Champions League trophy nine thousand miles to the west in the Saudi capital Riyadh. That journey to glory looked all the more unlikely on the day they lost their opening game 3-1 at home to Ulsan Hyundai.

Western Sydney Wanderers would go on to top the group, advancing alongside Kawasaki Frontale, while Ulsan Hyundai finished third and headed home early.

An all-Korean Round of 16 game brought together former champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers, with the latter emerging 3-1 winners. In turn, reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande looked good value for their title defence with a 5-2 victory over Cerezo Osaka to reach the quarter-finals, and in the west Al Ittihad defeated compatriots Al Shabab 4-1 while a local UAE derby saw Al Ain beat Al Jazira 4-2. For Wanderers, a statement 2-0 win turned around a 3-1 first leg defeat as the Australians’ dream journey saw them knock out Hiroshima Sanfrecce to set up a date with the title holders.

In the quarter-finals, a repeat of the 2005 final saw Al Ain come out comfortably on top, beating Al Ittihad 5-1. The margins were finer as Al Sadd edged Al Hilal 1-0 while another clash of the Koreans was settled by a penalty shootout as FC Seoul booked a semi-final ticket at the expense of Pohang Steelers. A late Elkeson goal proved useless as Guangzhou Evergrande crashed out in the quarter-finals having failed to reverse a 1-0 defeat in Sydney, winning 2-1 and exiting on away goals.

Then there were four; over in the west a classic encounter between two of the region’s most popular clubs went Al Hilal’s way as the Saudis took a comfortable 3-0 win from the first leg to Al Ain where their opponents could only muster a 2-1 win. Al Hilal moved to within 180 minutes from glory.

Awaiting on the other side were debutants Western Sydney Wanderers who again defied the odds to knock out an experienced side in FC Seoul, holding out for a stalemate in the first leg before winning 2-0 to become only the second Australian team to reach the final after Adelaide United in 2008.

Tomi Juric was the hero in Paramatta as Western Sydney Wanderers took a slender 1-0 lead in the first leg, but it was the heroics of goalkeeper Ante Covic that secured a historic title, keeping a clean sheet across 180 minutes as the Australians walked away with a goalless draw and the trophy in front of 60,000 fans in Riyadh’s King Fahd Stadium and Covic earned the honour of being named the competition’s MVP.

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