JEONJU, South Korea — Al Ain’s hopes of landing a second-ever AFC Champions League title remain in the balance after Danilo Asprilla’s half volley handed them a precious away goal during a frantic 2-1 loss at Leonardo-inspired Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
A hectic opening clash at a raucous Jeonju World Cup Stadium between West and East Asia’s finest sides burst into life past the hour mark. Colombian winger Asprilla’s unconventional left-footed swinger sending the approximately 300 travelling supporters into raptures, before the 2006 winners struck back.
Brazilian forward Leonardo has been one of the stars of this edition and his seven-minute brace in response put the destination of the Asian crown back into doubt. He first curled an unstoppable shot into the top corner, before effortlessly stroking in from the penalty spot for a 10th goal in 13 2016 ACL games after UAE left-back Mohammed Fayez’s pull on South Korean striker Kim Shin-wook.
The Boss then held it together in a adrenaline-pumping finale to retain hopes of success during next Saturday’s decider at their Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
A match of this magnitude was given the introduction it deserved. Thousands of green flags shot up across the stands and ear-splitting noise erupted from the Jeonbuk ultras, with the pocket of ‘Ainawi’ taking over their corner of this creaking ground.
A fluorescent explosion of fireworks, which next weekend’s trophy presentation will struggle to match, at kick-off then stunned the senses and left a hue of smoke in the air long into the first half.
Both coaches went for mobility in their selections. Out went static No9 Douglas for the Boss and in came the striker-less 4-3-3 formation utilised in the away leg at Qatar’s El Jaish in the semi-finals.
For the hosts, diligent right-back Choi Chul-soon was moved up into defensive midfield and tasked with shadowing 2016 AFC Player of the Year-elect – and nominal ‘false nine’ – Omar Abdulrahman. Colossal target man Kim Shin-wook got the nod over veteran poacher Lee Dong-gook.
Jeonbuk had blown away big-city rivals FC Seoul in the opening leg of the last four and they tried to repeat the trick this time.
The hopes for the inaugural 2002/03 winners – who forced the first save through Ahmed’s early header – of avoiding this fate were aided by Omani referee Ahmed al Kaf. He declined to issue bookings for a series of momentum-sapping fouls, before he and his linesman were involved in a moment of controversy.
Defensive midfielder Ahmed Barman clumsily volleyed ex-Cardiff City playmaker Kim Bo-kyung up into the air just inside the penalty box. Play was waved on by the laissez-faire referee, before it was called back for a free-kick by his assistant much to the chagrin of the hosts.
Jeonbuk oozed confidence despite a chaotic run-up which included a nine-point deduction in the K League Classic for bribery and the subsequent loss of the crown to Seoul a fortnight ago.
But Al Ain held firm, imbued with belief by a run of just one defeat in their last 10 away trips in Asia’s premier club competition stretching back to March 2015.
They rode the storm until the interval, and nearly went ahead through as ‘Amoory’ flickered into life with a rasping shot which was pushed away by skipper Kwon Sun-tae – who played a decade ago as Kuwait’s Al Karamah were defeated to claim the club’s only ACL title.
An enthralling match then exploded into overdrive.
Erratic Colombian winger Asprilla produced a moment of inspiration on 63 minutes, a hopeful flick of his left boot arrowing into the top corner. The Al Ain players flocked to their joyous supporters, whose dreams of continental supremacy became enlivened.
A cavalry charge from the Green Warriors was inevitable. When it came, Brazilian left winger Leonardo wrought devastation.
He only required a metre of space to fire past helpless UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa on 70 minutes, before he was calmness personified from 12 yards soon after.
Al Ain then had stand-in right-back Fawzi Fayez to thank, in what could be a pivotal moment in the tie, as he headed off the line at the death.