History on line as unprecedented fourth AFC Champions League crown beckons

Hong Kong (AFP) – Al Hilal face Pohang Steelers in the AFC Champions League final in Riyadh on Tuesday with both teams looking to be the first to lift Asian club football’s biggest prize four times.

But South Korea’s Steelers will have to overcome fervent home support with an expected 68,000 Al Hilal fans packing out the King Fahd Stadium after Covid crowd restrictions were lifted.

Managed by the Portuguese Leonardo Jardim, Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia will be looking for their second Champions League crown in three seasons to add to their 1991 and 2000 victories.

Standing in their way are three-time continental champions Pohang Steelers, who reached the final for the first time since 2009 by knocking out the defending champions Ulsan.

Kim Gi-dong’s side recovered from a goal down to prevail in a penalty shoot-out in a Korean east coast derby.

Manager Kim is looking for a second Champions League title with Pohang — he was a player when they claimed a then-unprecedented third Champions League in 2009 to add to back-to-back wins in 1997 and 1998.

The magnitude of the occasion is not lost on Pohang defender Alex Grant.

“There’s photos up on the wall of past Pohang teams lifting the AFC Champions League,” the former Australia youth international told the Asian Football Confederation official website.

“I knew they were a big club in terms of the AFC Champions League and their success in Korea,” added Grant, who was signed form Perth Glory 11 months ago.

“You do have that sense around the club that we’re expected to do well in this competition. 

“There’s belief there that other Pohang teams have done well so there’s no reason why we can’t as well.”

– ‘What an experience’ –

Pohang will start as underdogs against an Al Hilal side packed with talent — eight of their players feature in the Saudi Arabia team who top their World Cup qualifying group and recently drew 0-0 in Australia.

They also boast well-travelled striker Bafetimbi Gomis, who played in the English Premier League for Swansea City and has 12 caps for France.

Gomis has already tasted Champions League success, scoring the final goal to cap a 3-0 aggregate victory in the last two-legged final, against Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in 2019. 

The final this time is only one leg.

“We’ll lap it up,” Grant said of the hostile reception promised by an expected capacity crowd in Riyadh.

It’s a far cry from last season’s Champions League knockout-stage matches — played behind closed doors at centralised venues in Qatar because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Ulsan FC beating Iran’s Persepolis 2-1 in the final.

“What an experience. If we win we’ll deserve it — but to sweep it from under their grasp would be great,” said Grant.  

“I can’t wait, just to play in front of a fully packed stadium, especially with how things have been the last two years with Covid.”

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