Al Ittihad, of Saudi Arabia, confirmed their status as Asia’s top club when they won the AFC Champions League for a second year running thanks to a 4-2 win over Al Ain, of the United Arab Emirates, to wrap up a 5-3 aggregate win.
With the title very much up for grabs after a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Ittihad took control in the return match with a goal after just two minutes from Mohamed Kallon and a Mohammed Noor header on 33 minutes giving Anghel Iordanescu’s side a 2-0 lead at the break.
Although Al Ain, winners of this competition in 2003, pulled one back courtesy of a Shebab Ahmed penalty 10 minutes after the re-start, the side from Jeddah reasserted their supremacy a minute later through Joseph-Desire Job, later sent off. Ahmed Dokhi completed the rout with 22 minutes left on the clock before Luis Tejada pulled one back for the visitors in added time.
The win meant a US$500,000 pay day for Anghel Iordanescu’s side for winning the competition and, more importantly, a place at the FIFA Club World Championship 2005 in Japan.
With the game barely two minutes old, Al Ittihad, conquerors of China's Shandong Luneng in the quarter-finals and Busan I’Park of Korea Republic in the semis, gave their fans reason to raise the roof when Kallon, formerly of Inter Milan and Monaco, placed a free-kick over the Al Ain wall and past Abdulla Mutaz into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Al Ain’s defence was at fault for Al Ittihad’s second, which came on 33 minutes. Tcheco, one of five players in the Al Ittihad starting 11 who played in the 2004 AFC Champions League final, floated a free-kick into the danger area from the left and an unchallenged Noor, later named Man of the Match, planted a header wide of Mutaz’s right hand into the net to send the Al Ittihad faithful into raptures.
Al Ain got the start to the second half they needed when skipper Fahad Ali was tripped in the box by Tcecho. Singaporean referee Shamsul Maidan pointed to the spot and Shebab stepped up and sent Mabrouk Zaid the wrong way to give Macala’s side hope with 35 minutes left to play.
Amazingly, though, their joy lasted just 60 seconds as Alberto Blanco and Ali Msarri both failed to make contact with Tcheco’s free-kick from the right and Job, on loan from English side Middlesbrough, was on hand at the near post to head his first goal for the Saudis.
On 68 minutes, any hopes the visitors had of finding a way back into the game was snuffed out when Dokhi, overlapping down the right, fired the ball across Mutaz and into the far corner of the net.
Tejada’s late effort was no more than a consolation prize for the vanquished men in purple.
Al Ain were left rueing their failure to build an advantage in the first leg. They had taken the lead in that game through Ali Msarri early in the second half but Ittihad hit back with just five minutes remaining, Mohamed Kallon levelling the score from the penalty spot.
While Ittihad had strolled into the final, the Emirates side had gone through a roller-coaster ride to get there. Their hopes of even making it to the knockout stage had appeared dicey when they trailed 2-0 to Syrian side Al Wahda with just 10 minutes remaining in their penultimate Group B game, but they rallied to win 3-2 and then defeated Iran’s Sepahan by the same score in their last game to advance.
They found themselves on the ropes yet again in the quarter-finals, trailing another Iranian side Pas 4-2 on aggregate with seven minutes left before Helal Saeed’s late double gave them victory on away goals.
Given their earlier anxieties, Al Ain’s semi-final victory against Shenzhen Jianlibao proved an anti-climax as they pounded the Chinese side 6-0 at home before earning a goalless draw in China to progress.
Ittihad had a far less dramatic campaign. Entering the competition in the quarter-finals after being given a bye through the group stage, they disposed of Shandong Luneng 8-3 on aggregate in the quarter-final before handing Busan I’Park a 7-0 aggregate defeat in the last four.