Steelers set to make run for first AFC title

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Steelers set to make run for first AFC title

The Pohang Steelers will attempt to slay the “K-League killers” in the AFC Champions League finals at National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday.

The team, which faces the Saudi club Al-Ittihad in the final match of the tourney, has its hands full as it attempts to become only the second K-League club to win the title since the Jeonbuk Motors achieved the feat back in 2006. And it certainly won’t be easy: Al-Ittihad got its nickname by dominating K-League clubs in the past.

Although Pohang has two Asian Champions Cup titles - having won in 1997 and ‘98 - it has yet to win a Champions League crown since the tournament launched in the 2002-03 season.

Sergio Farias, Pohang’s manager, is aiming to add an AFC Champions League title to his resume. He has already guided Pohang to the 2007 K-League title, the 2008 FA Cup title and the 2009 Peace Cup title.

“It will be a great match,” Farias said about facing the Saudi club in the finals after defeating Umm Salal of Qatar. “Al-Ittihad boasts a strong lineup like us. They scored [eight] goals in the semifinals. However, we also scored some nice goals.”

Pohang will look to score early and often against the Saudis. Farias will depend on four key players on his offense: Denilson, Stevica Ristic, Kim Jae-sung and Noh Byung-joon. Denilson is the most dangerous of the group with seven goals to his credit in the Champions League tourney. Macedonian national Ristic is another prominent figure on the Steelers’ offense with three goals. Supporting the two forwards are Kim and Noh. Kim was somewhat quiet earlier this season but has emerged as a key player at this year’s Champions League games, while Noh has three goals and several key assists to his credit.

Kim has played his best football in the most crucial games. In the quarterfinal against the Uzbek club Bunyodkor, Pohang faced a difficult situation after losing the first leg of the series 3-1. The usually high-scoring Pohang offense failed to net a goal in the first half. However, Kim was substituted into the match at the start of the second half and scored Pohang’s first goal soon after. Pohang went onto add three more to hand Bunyodkor a 4-1 loss. Kim’s impressive play continued in the semifinals against Umm Salal as he added a goal and two assists in the series. He has four goals and two assists at the tourney so far.

Farias and his players will have plenty of support in Tokyo, with an expected 1,500 Pohang supporters expected to attend the upcoming game at National Stadium. Roughly 1,000 of the supporters are Koreans residents living in Japan and students studying abroad. The rest consist of Pohang supporters who will make the trip from Korea to Japan.

“We initially expected 200 from Korea but the number increased to 500,” Kim Tae-young, a member of Pohang’s public relations team, said in an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. “We’ve had an enormous amount of interest in the Champions League finals. It’s gotten to the point where the amount of incoming calls is making it hard for us to do our daily work.”

Al-Ittihad has been dominant over K-League clubs in Champions League matches, garnering five wins against one loss and scoring 17 goals while giving up just six. Al-Ittihad won Champions League titles in 2004 and 2005 after beating K-League clubs. In the 2004 finals, Seongnam Ilhwa managed to win the first game in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by a score of 3-1. The series seemed all but over as the two sides prepared for the second leg in Seongnam, Gyeonggi. However, Al-Ittihad won the game 5-0 to take their first AFC title.

Their dominance continued the following year as they defeated Busan I’Park with an aggregate score of 7-0 in the semifinals before downing Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates in the finals.

By Jason Kim []
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