RIYADH: It is destiny. Al-Hilal, the star-studded Saudi Arabian powerhouse, will meet Pohang Steelers, the South Korean team with no stars, in the final of the AFC Champions League on Nov. 23.
Of all the hundreds of clubs around the world’s biggest continent and the 40 that started out in the tournament at the start of this year, only two teams have been champions of Asia three times — these two.
Twenty-three years after they met in a bad-tempered Asian Club Championship semi-final, with Pohang Steelers running out 1-0 winners in Hong Kong, their paths will cross again. Once they both reached their respective semi-finals on the opposite ends of Asia, a new showdown seemed certain.
What is guaranteed is that one of them will be able to put a fourth star on their shirts and officially become Asia’s most successful club ever.
While Al-Hilal’s 2-1 win over Al-Nassr on Tuesday was somewhat expected, Pohang’s penalty shootout triumph, after a 1-1 draw, the following day over fellow K League team Ulsan Horang-i was not and, on paper, the Saudi Arabian team will be strong favorites next month.
This is partly because of home advantage with the final held in Riyadh when there will be just a smattering of South Korean fans at Mrsool Stadium.
The other reason is that Pohang are not as good as the South Korean team Al-Hilal could have faced. Ulsan are defending Asian champions and are currently on top of the K League as it heads into the final stretch of the season.
They cannot match Al-Hilal in terms of stars but there are well-respected Korean talents in the Ulsan side such as Lee Chung-yong, who spent years in the English Premier League with Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace, Yoon Bitgaram, another experienced former international, as well as young talents including Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae. The 2018 World Cup goalkeeping hero Jo Hyeon-woo is there too as is talented Georgian midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili.
Pohang Steelers, on the other hand, do not have any South Korean internationals apart from defender Kang Sang-woo who has 18 minutes of national team experience that came against Sri Lanka in June.
The team, owned by steel giant POSCO, is largely made up of experienced veterans, along with young players, with this season’s top scorer, on 15 goals in all competitions, being 33-year-old Lee Sang-hyub.
The foreign contingent is a physically powerful one. There is Australian defender Alex Grant, who headed home the last-minute equalizer against Ulsan that took the semi-final into extra time and ultimately into a victorious penalty shootout. Borys Tashchy is a 1.92-meter-tall forward with some experience in Germany, and Colombian Manuel Palacios also plays in attack.
Pohang’s problem this season has been goals. In 2020, they finished third in the league, without being in the title race, but this time around they are struggling in lower mid-table and currently have a negative goal difference. Losing the 2020 Young Player of the Year Song Min-kyu in July was a blow as was the departure of Stanislav Iljutcenko. Pohang have long struggled to keep hold of their best players.
Al-Hilal fans will look at that and then look at the 12-team K League table and see Pohang in the bottom half, in seventh, a full 22 points behind Ulsan and breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding the league leaders and current continental champions. Not just that, but the Pohang team lacks Asian experience as this is a first appearance in five years.
It does not mean that the final is going to be a walkover. Had Ulsan been in the final, they may well have been distracted by a tight title race. Pohang can focus on the Champions League final and nothing else. And this is a team that has a habit of confounding the critics in Asia.
Cerezo Osaka of Japan were the first to be eliminated in the knockout round but most expected that Nagoya Grampus would end Pohang’s run at the quarter-final stage. Instead, the Koreans ran out 3-0 winners and then went on to defeat Ulsan, though were a goal down and struggling until Ulsan captain Won Du-jae was shown a straight red card for a rash tackle.
It leaves Pohang as the underdog, a no-pressure position they will be happy to occupy in Riyadh. They did, after all, defeat Al-Ittihad in the AFC Champions League final in Tokyo in 2009 and South Korean teams believe they can go anywhere in Asia and win, with a collective 12 club championships equal to the tally won by Japan and Saudi Arabia, in second and third, combined.
Al-Hilal will be happy that they are not facing Ulsan Horang-i, defending champion and South Korea’s best team, but should not get too carried away. Pohang will be a tough nut to crack, have nothing to lose, and this team with no stars wants a fourth star on their shirt.