Favourites Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea take on Qatar’s Al Sadd on Saturday in the AFC Champions League final in the battle for the biggest prize in Asian club football.
Jeonbuk go into the game in front of a home crowd in Jeonju as hot favourites after a free-scoring run to the final that has seen them notch 31 goals against the Qataris’ 15.
But underdogs Al Sadd will be spurred on by their critics and are keen to shake their image as the bad boys of Asian football after their part in an ugly brawl with their Korean semi-final opponents Suwon Bluewings.
The goal-shy Qataris are unfancied after a stuttering Champions League campaign, but captain Wesam Rizik urged his teammates to grasp their chance of making history by winning a continental title for the first time since 1989.
“This is a moment of history for us as players and as a club. I hope we won’t miss it,” he said Friday ahead of the game, expected to draw a 43,000-strong sell-out crowd.
His words were echoed by bullish coach Jorge Fossati, adamant his side can silence critics who say they are undeserving of a final place after a bruising campaign that included the semi-final punch-up with Suwon.
“Nobody gave us a chance in the quarter-finals, the semi-finals. They said Jeonbuk, Al Ittihad, Suwon will be there,” the Uruguayan coach said.
“Jeonbuk are favourites. We have to respect them but we also have big confidence.”
Jeonbuk’s status as favourites will be boosted by the return to the squad of star striker Lee Dong-Gook, scorer of nine goals in the competition so far, following a calf injury — although he is likely to start on the bench.
“He really wants to play… now he doesn’t have the injury. The problem is physical, how much power and energy he has,” said Jeonbuk boss Choi Kang-Hee.
The 32-year-old Lee has been pivotal to Jeonbuk’s exploits this season and he hit six against Japan’s Cerezo Osaka over two legs in the quarter-finals.
But Al Sadd will have to wait until just before the kick-off at 7:00 pm (1000 GMT) to see if Choi, the tournament’s leading scorer, is bluffing with hints of leaving former Middlesbrough hitman Lee on the bench.
If the wily 52-year-old, who led Jeonbuk to a 2006 Champions League win, is true to his word, Jeong Shung-Hoon will partner Brazilian Eninho, the tournament’s joint second highest goalscorer with six goals.
Jeonju, a city of 600,000 people three hours from Seoul, is preparing for an influx of fans, with hotels fully booked and bars in the normally tranquil city centre braced for a party if Jeonbuk win.
From behind the bar at his trendy coffee shop in central Jeonju, Jeonbuk fan Seo Young-Huan predicted a 3-0 win for the home side.
“If we win, tonight will be crazy,” he said.
But Al Sadd are determined to ruin the celebrations and wrestle the coveted trophy out of South Korean hands for the first time in three years following wins for Pohang Steelers and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.
Fossati will be able to call on key forwards Mamadou Niang and Keita Abdul Kader, after the pair served one-match suspensions in the second leg against Suwon.
“The game will be very tough for sure,” said Fossati. “But we promise to put 100 percent in and we have big confidence in our players to take victory.”