The AFC Champions League, Asia’s premier club competition, comes to a close this Saturday, as Iranian league champions Persepolis FC face South Korean K League runners-up Ulsan Hyundai.
The tournament, suspended for six months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the clubs of former European stars such as Oscar [Shanghai SIPG] and Andres Iniesta [Vissel Kobe] crash out on the route to the final.
Ulsan, hailing from the city of that name in the south-east of South Korea, will be aiming to repeat their success of 2012, when they beat Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli 3-0 to win their first AFC Champions League.
Persepolis, from the Iranian capital Tehran, are playing in their second AFC Champions League final in three years after losing to Japan’s Kashima Antlers in 2018.
Should they go one better this time, they will end Iranian clubs’ 27-year wait for a continental trophy.
When Ulsan and Persepolis captains Lee Keun-ho and Jalal Hosseini lead their teams out in Qatar on Saturday, it will be the culmination of a trophy hunt that began back in February.
The tournament, which is split into AFC East and West before the conference champions meet in the final, was of course heavily disrupted by the pandemic.
Thus, in similar manner to Europe’s Champions League restarting in Portugal, most of the knockout games were moved to Qatar, giving fans an opportunity to see some of the 2022 World Cup facilities.
The final will take place in the city of Al Wakra, just south of the capital Doha, at the Al Janoub Stadium which will host seven games during the controversial global showpiece.
Ulsan Hyundai FC
Nickname: The Ulsan Tigers
Key players: Yoon Bit-garam (midfielder), Júnior Negrão (striker)
Head coach: Kim Do-hoon
Ulsan (AFC East) qualified for the final in dramatic fashion, coming from 1-0 down to beat Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe 2-1 in the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha.
The win was sealed courtesy of a 118th-minute penalty from Ulsan’s 33-year-old Brazilian forward Júnior.
After beating Vissel Kobe, Ulsan’s 30-year-old playmaker Yoon was in a confident mood.
“If we can keep a positive attitude like we did [against Vissel] and give everything on the pitch, we can win the AFC Champions League final,” he told theAFC.com
Nickname: The Red Army
Key players: Mehdi Abdi Qara (striker), Jalal Hosseini (defender)
Head coach: Yahya Golmohammadi
Persepolis (AFC West) have had a long time to prepare for Saturday’s final. They qualified on 3 October after beating Saudi side Al-Nassr on penalties, despite going behind in normal time and going down to 10 men in the first half of extra time.
However, they will be without a number of key players.
Striker Issa Alekasir, who has scored four goals in the competition, was suspended for six months after being found guilty of making a racist anti-South-East Asian gesture in the quarter-final.
Midfielders Vahid Amiri and Ehsan Pahlevan are missing too due to suspension, but Alexsir’s replacement Mehdi Abdi Qara scored the equaliser against Al-Nassr and should lead the line well.
Persepolis captain Hosseini spoke to Sports Gazette about what the final meant to the club. “Being in the final means we are one of the most powerful teams in Asia. We are proud of ourselves but it’s not our final act. Our aim is winning the title,” he said.
Speaking to Iranian media, Persepolis head coach Golmohammadi was in a diplomatic mood.
“Ulsan are a strong team and deserved to be in the final match. They are a disciplined team and play attacking football,” he said.
“Our players are full of motivation and we have to fight until the end if we want to win the title.”
The AFC Champions League final kicks off at 12:00 (GMT) on Saturday 19 December, and will be streamed for UK viewers on Bet365.