A great deal of excitement surrounded the inaugural edition of the re-branded AFC Champions League for the 2002-03 season.
The shiny new tournament pitted Asia’s finest against each other in a first-of-its-kind competition that merged the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners’ Cup and Asian Super Cup.
With it came the opportunity for one team to be legitimately be crowned the continent’s best team, so the stakes were high and the competition fierce.
For UAE clubs, their pedigree in Asia’s previous top tournament – the Asian Club Championship – was non-existent.
No side from the Emirates had reached the final before 2002 and only Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal had lifted the trophy as winners from West Asia.
But things were to change in 2002-03 as an Al Ain side, under the guidance of the late Bruno Metsu, rose to the top of Asian football in stunning fashion.
Few would have predicted their run but they hit the ground running in Group C, a Gharib Harib penalty securing a win over Hilal in the opening match of their group at the old Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.
It was a sign of things to come and Al Ain made the most of the entirety of the group’s fixtures being played at their home ground across the space of seven days.
Qatar’s Al-Sadd were the next visitors to Al Ain and were dispatched 2-0 thanks to goals from the Ivory Coast duo of on-loan Kandia Toure and club legend Boubacar Sanogo.
Esteghal of Iran were Al Ain’s final opponents in the group, the match deciding who would progress into the knockout stages with an Esteghal win the only outcome that could see a side match Al Ain’s six points from six.
They made it nine from nine with a 3-1 win, Faisal Ali’s strike levelled by Esteghal’s Ali Samereh before Sanogo and Harib struck their second goals of the competition.
Three wins out of three saw Al Ain top the group comfortably and set up a two-legged semi-final with China’s Dalian Shide, which you can read about on Sport360.com on Wednesday.
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