Europeans and South Americans will wage proxy football battles in the Asian Champions League semifinals.
A Serbian coach is pitted against an Argentine, while a Brazilian tussles with a Frenchman with spots in the Nov. 7 final in Tokyo at stake.
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Not only that, whichever of the four teams still in contention can create some ACL history by winning the title.
South Korea’s Pohang Steelers and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia are aiming for a record third continental championship, while Nagoya Grampus of Japan and Qatar’s Umm Salal want to celebrate a first win.
Al Ittihad, led by former Argentina defender Gabriel Calderon, host Nagoya in Jeddah on Wednesday in the first ever Asian Champions League matchup featuring teams from two of the traditional soccer powers of the region.
The Tigers have a vast amount of Asian experience and lifted the 2004 and 2005 titles. Nagoya, a team coached by former Yugoslav international Dragan Stojkovic, is in its first ever continental tournament and playing in West Asia for the first time.
The Saudi team is the favorite and in great form after a 5-1 aggregate quarterfinal victory over Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor and four wins out of four in the domestic competition.
“Our next match in the semifinals will not be easy,” Calderon said. “We need to travel to Japan and we will face a strong team but since we accept no excuses I think we will secure the win and qualify for the final.”
Al Ittihad will be without 2004 and 2005 veteran Redha Tukar through suspension while Nagoya’s defensive problems stem from a more unusual source.
Takahiro Masukawa has contracted swine flu, though there is some better news for coach Stojkovic as international striker Keiji Tamada could recover from a rib injury sustained while playing for Japan against Hong Kong two weeks ago.
Nagoya knocked out South Korea champions Suwon Bluewings in the second round and a late goal from Australian target man Josh Kennedy gave them a narrow win over fellow J-League team Kawasaki Frontale in the quarterfinals.
Unlike its unstoppable Saudi opponent, Nagoya is in indifferent form. Just ninth in the J-League, the club is now fully focused on making sure that Japan has a representative in the Tokyo final and a number of players were rested in the 2-1 defeat at Yokohama F Marinos last weekend.
There is no rest for Pohang Steelers. The Korean team, led by Brazil’s Sergio Farias, is still challenging for the K-League title but the team has saved some of its best performances this season for Asian encounters.
In the second round, Australia’s Newcastle Jets were thrashed 6-0. In the quarterfinal, Pohang overturned a 3-1 first leg defeat at Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor to win 5-4 on aggregate.
It was a stunning display of attacking football which Bunyodkor’s World Cup winning Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had no answer to.
Scolari’s fellow Brazilian and Pohang striker Denilson is trying not to get too carried away.
“My goal and the team’s goal is to win the Champions League,” the powerful forward said. “This will be the best reward for the players, staff, fans and everyone else. We gained a lot of experience from last year’s Champions League, which was a big disappointment, so we’re eager to do better this year. We learned how to reduce mistakes and prepared well for the tournament. Every player knows his role in the team and this has made the difference.”
With just one defeat in 17 domestic games, Pohang is in good form at the right time. Umm Salal may be fresher, just three games into its domestic season, but the wealthy Qatar club has yet to win a domestic match.
It did well in the ACL quarterfinal, eliminating highly fancied FC Seoul to deny South Korea an all K-League semifinal.
French coach Gerard Gili has assembled and expensive and effective Brazilian strike force. Magno Alves was Qatar’s leading league scorer last season, and partner Davi provides able support.
It could be a busy night for Pohang’s highly-rated defensive duo of Kim Hyung-il, back in the team after suspension, and Hwang Jae-won.
Both teams are hoping for a busy few weeks that take in Tokyo and then FIFA’s Club World Championship in the United Arab Emirates in December.