Qatar’s Al Sadd shocked Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea 4-2 on penalties in a thrilling AFC Champions League final Saturday after they were deadlocked at 2-2 following extra-time.
Former Portsmouth left-back Nadir Belhadj fired the winner into the roof of the Jeonbuk net, sparking delirium among the Al Sadd players and breaking the hearts of the near-capacity crowd at the 43,000-seat Jeonju World Cup stadium.
The home side had dramatically forced extra-time with an injury-time equaliser, but amid high tension Al Sadd goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr brilliantly saved penalties from Kim Dong-Chan and Park Won-Jae.
“I’m very happy for him. When I returned to the club people told me he can’t play any more, they said he was too old, but he played fantastic,” Al Sadd coach Jorge Fossati said of his hero goalkeeper.
“I couldn’t imagine this game would go to penalties. I was really worried to get to extra-time because our physical condition was not normal after 10 hours of flight. I was worried we wouldn’t finish the game.”
It was the first AFC Champions League final to be decided by penalties and Al Sadd’s win breaks a three-year hold on the title by Korean clubs, following wins for Pohang Steelers and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.
Jeonbuk, chasing a second Champions League win after lifting the trophy in 2006, came close several times in a nerve-shredding 30 minutes of extra-time, but were repeatedly denied by the underdogs and the brilliant Saqr.
Home coach Coi Kang-Hee lamented his side’s profligacy saying it cost them the game but also suggested the great expectations on his side, who clinched the regular K-League season last week, had left them overcooked.
“It was the missed chances and some of our players also got too emotional for the game and couldn’t control themselves,” he said.
“The fans’ expectation was a very difficult situation for me. We are very sad but I tell you the players gave their very best.”
The victory brought an exhilarating end to a turbulent competition for Al Sadd, who were involved in an ugly mass brawl during their semi-final against South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Abdul Kader Keita, who was one of the players sent off in the semi-final punch-up, looked to have secured the title for Al Sadd with a second-half strike, until Lee Sung-Hyun’s headed equaliser in last-gasp stoppage time.
Imperious Brazilian Eninho had given Jeonbuk the lead with a deliciously curled free-kick on 19 minutes, but an own goal by Sim Woo-Yeon levelled the scores before Keita’s speared shot put the visitors in front.
It was a messy but enthralling game.
Despite a barrage of jeers, Al Sadd started brightly with strikers Mamadou Niang and Keita — both back from suspensions after the fight — impressive and linking with the excellent Belhadj, who terrorised Jeonbuk’s right side.
When Eninho scored, the expected Jeonbuk goal glut failed to materialise and Al Sadd equalised on the half-hour mark when a seemingly innocuous Keita cross squirted off Sim Woo-Yeon’s head and in.
The visitors then stunned the crowd as they took the lead with a counter-attack.
Jeonbuk surged back, hitting the post from a corner and winning a series of free-kicks in and around the box, before finally being rewarded with Lee’s late goal.
Former English Premier League striker Lee Dong-Gook, who was named the tournament’s most valued player and top scorer, said he felt “responsible” for the loss after failing to recover from a calf injury that saw him benched.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I want to apologise to the fans because I did not play to my full potential,” said the former Middlesbrough man, who came on late in the game.
Despite their remarkable win the Qataris were criticised by Jeonbuk fans for negative tactics during the game, including time-wasting and some theatrical attempts to win free-kicks.
Their image was hardly boosted by the sending off of Ali Afif with seconds of extra-time remaining.
Al Sadd progress to December’s World Club Cup to be held in Japan, where they will compete against Barcelona and Brazilian outfit Santos.