The blow came from an unlikely source, the result most painful.
It was the boot of unmarked substitute Han Kyo-won which was to, so agonisingly, deny Al Ain a second AFC Champions League crown and gift this standing to South Korea’s resolute Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. With it, a 13-year wait to become continental kings was extended and a sinuous, taxing 10-month journey was brought to a devastating end.
The Boss rewarded a sold-out Hazza bin Zayed Stadium with a desperate push to reduce the 2-1 deficit from last weekend’s vivid first leg of the final. Midfielder Lee Myung-joo was to level on the night against his countrymen, but this is a game which is sure to be remembered by recalled striker Douglas’ egregious penalty miss when the Green Warriors were on the ropes.
The visitors would go on to heal the wounds of 2011’s showpiece loss to Qatar’s Al Sadd. For their vanquished opponent, the “nightmares” coach Choi Kang-hee spoke about a week ago are set to return after 2005’s loss to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad was long forgotten.
Douglas’ reintroduction had looked like a smart move from coach Zlatko Dalic – who was to be dismissed in first half injury time. It freed star man Omar Abdulrahman from the ill-suited role of a false nine utilised at the creaking Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
In the opposition dugout, three-time ACL finalist, and now two-time winner, Choi brought in centre-back Cho Sung-hwan and striker Lee Dong-gook – players at a combined age of 71.
Typical grandstanding came before kick-off, a flag show carried out to classical music making this feel like a trip to the opera rather than Asia’s premier club football match. But the ceaseless entertainment from last weekend’s opening stanza was immediately reimposed.
Al Ain forward Caio claimed a push in the penalty area as he jumped over a deflected cross, while the early removal of flying fellow Brazilian Ricardo Lopes because of injury would prove fortuitous for the visitors. A foray forward against the run of play then caused a corner, shortly after Omar Abdulrahman had been lucky not to see red for a petulant stamp on man-marker Choi Chul-soon.
Rising South Korea star Lee Jae-sung swung it onto the foot of criminally-unmarked replacement Han to slot in. Cue pandemonium from the ‘Mad Green Boys’ who had made the journey west.
Al Ain could have crumbled but just like they did after incurring a pair of opening defeats in Group D, plus the salvage jobs on the road in both the round of 16 and quarter-finals, they responded.
Caio sent back in an unmarked corner and superb South Korea centre midfielder Lee’s volley rebounded off the ground and past countryman Kwon Sun-tae. A good time to score your first goal in 15 matches.
Redress then should have been theirs after centre-back Kim Hyung-il dallied in possession and tripped the lurking Danilo Asprilla inside the box. But in another misuse of ‘Amoory’, the ball was passed to Douglas, who blazed wildly over.
This felt like a huge moment, a critical blow in the bid to replicate the 2002/03 history makers’ feats and avoid a repeat of bitter rivals Al Ahli’s loss at this stage last year.
Whether fuelled with frustration by the miss or irked by a comment after the ball wasn’t sent out of play towards the end of the half, the usually-unflappable Dalic and Park Choong-kyun, from the
Jeonju staff, sparked a riot from which both were dismissed.
Omar Abdulrahman sought the ball with haste following the interval, desperate to gain continental glory before next week’s coronation as 2016 AFC Player of the Year.
Yet a telling contribution from the playmaker wasn’t to follow as the half flew by without incident.
The doomed Douglas stung Kwon’s fingertips from 20 yards and veteran replacement Ibrahim DIaky caused him to palm away. Try as they might though, the joy was to be Jeonbuk’s.
Images by Christopher Whiteoak.