Steelers beat Ulsan to earn a spot in the Champions League final
The Pohang Steelers have earned a spot in the AFC Champions League final after beating reigning champions Ulsan Hyundai in the all-Korean semifinal on Wednesday night in Jeonju, North Jeolla.
Speaking ahead of the match, Ulsan coach Hong Mung-bo had called the all-Korean semifinal a chance to “promote the excellence of the K League.” In reality, the scrappy game wasn't quite the showcase Hong may have imagined, with the often-violent match seeing a huge 34 fouls, five yellow cards and a red card between the two teams.
Things started slow in the first half, with neither side able to get anything across despite multiple opportunities.
The score stayed level until the 51st minute, when Yun Il-lok finally broke the silence for Ulsan.
The unusual goal saw Yun pick up a loose ball that had just been saved by Pohang goalkeeper Lee Jun, dribble it around his body and then slot it calmy into the back of the net.
The confusing goal caught the Pohang defenders on the backfoot, unable to react to what at first may have looked like Yun had taken the ball out of Lee’s hands. No foul was committed and the goal stood, taking the score to 1-0.
The tone of the game changed dramatically in the 67th minute when Ulsan captain Won Du-jae was sent off for a two-footed tackle. Despite outrage from the Ulsan fans and players, the TV replay clearly showed Won connect with two feet, almost always an instant red.
Pohang struggled to take advantage of a number of opportunities over the following 20 minutes, sending shot after shot either straight to the keeper or well clear of the goal.
Just when it looked like Ulsan had the game locked up, Pohang’s Alex Grant sent a last-gasp header off the post into the top right corner of the net in the 90th minute to tie the game at 1-1.
Pohang continued the offensive throughout injury time but were unable to break through the Ulsan defense to pick up that all-important second goal before the whistle blew.
Despite the one-man advantage and an increasingly pressing offense, Pohang were unable to convert throughout the 30 minutes of extra time, repeatedly taking the ball into the Ulsan box but failing to do anything with it.
Ulsan also rallied for a few big chances, but were ultimately unable to get anything across.
The game got more violent during extra time. In the 114th minute, both Pohang’s Park Seung-wook and Ulsan’s Seol Young-woo were lucky to avoid reds for an altercation that saw Park pull Seol to the ground by his shirt and Seol walk up and knee him in the back in return.
The referee, who repeatedly had to physically restrain players throughout the game, wisely opted to hand out two yellows and calm things down in the increasingly tense match.
With neither team scoring in 120 minutes, the game went to penalties, pitting 24-year-old Lee Jun against veteran and sometime national team keeper Jo Hyeon-woo.
Lee started strong, saving the first penalty from Ulsan’s Dave Bulthuis and, as it turned out, that was all that mattered. Neither goalkeeper was able to save the following nine shots, with Pohang winning the shootout 5-4 to advance to the AFC Champions League final.
Pohang haven’t reached an AFC Champions league final since 2009, the only time they have won the tournament. They also won the predecessor tournament in 1997 and 1998.
Pohang will now face Saudi side Al Hilal, who beat Al-Nassr 2-1 in the other semifinal on Wednesday, in the AFC Champions League final on Nov. 23.
The final is set to be a historic fixture as it pits two of the winningest teams in pan-Asian football against each other, with Al Hilal already having won the Champions League three times.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]