• A ten-game unbeaten run propelled Ulsan to Asian glory
  • They will play at the FIFA Club World Cup for a second time
  • Bitgaram, Iniesta, Junior Negrao and Qara dazzled during the campaign

Ulsan painted Al Wakrah blue on Saturday. Trailing, Junior Negrao scored twice in a wild ten-minute spell to secure a 2-1 victory over Persepolis in the AFC Champions League final and book the South Koreans a return to Qatar for February’s FIFA Club World Cup™.

The campaign had been postponed after only two rounds in March due to COVID-19. It resumed in September, with all matches played in Qatar, and they proved a real treat for fans.

Road to Qatar 2020

Ulsan had a slow start in the campaign, only having their blushes saved by an own-goal in a 1-1 opening draw against FC Tokyo in February. But Kim Dohoon’s charges emerged a different team when East Zone competition resumed in November, winning the remaining five games to progress as group winners. They went on to beat Melbourne Victory 3-0 in the Round of 16, before seeing off Beijing Guoan 2-0 in the quarter-finals. They would come from behind to win 2-1 in the semi-final against Vissel Kobe, before another comeback saw them edge Persepolis to conquer Asia.

Stand-out stories

First match with spectators

Since the competition’s resumption in mid-September, all matches were played in a centralised format and behind closed doors. But with 30 per cent attendance allowed in the final, it saw fans present for the first time. Notable among those gracing the occasion were FIFA President Gianni Infantino and his AFC counterpart Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

Lee tastes second success

Substituted on after 72 minutes, Ulsan captain Lee Keunho did what he could to help his side keep their desperate rivals at bay, successfully holding out for a 2-1 victory. Eight years ago, the 35-year-old finished as the 2012 campaign’s Most Valuable Player as Ulsan clinched their maiden title, performances which led to him earning that year’s AFC Player of the Year award.

Another near miss for Persepolis

With Ulsan leading 2-1 and the clock ticking down, Persepolis goalkeeper Hamed Lak was on his knees with his head to the ground praying for a miracle as his side mounted what was their last attack. Unfortunately, the anticipated equaliser didn’t materialize, with Persepolis again coming so close to tasting their maiden AFC Champions League title, having lost to Kashima Antlers in the 2018 final.

Iniesta’s magic touch

Despite being 36 years old, Andres Iniesta showed he has lost none of his wizardry touches on the ball. Besides pulling the strings and driving the team forward, he scored twice over the campaign, notably opening the scoring in a Round-of-16 victory over Shanghai SIPG.

Shining stars

Tournament Most Valued Player Yoon Bitgaram proved the driving force in the midfield throughout Ulsan’s run to glory. The 30-year-old Korea Republic playmaker scored two braces, provided four assists and earned the first-half penalty against Persepolis from which Junior Negrao equalised.

The latter finished as the tournament’s joint-top marksman alongside Al Nassr’s Abderrazak Hamdallah (seven goals apiece). The 33-year-old former Corinthians striker was particularly brilliant in the knockout phase, scoring five times, including twice in the final.

Deployed as the centre-forward, 22-year-old Abdi Mehdi Qara was a revelation for Persepolis during the knockout phase, scoring the crucial equaliser against Al-Nassr in the semi-final before opening the scoring against Ulsan. It remains to be seen whether his predatory talents will earn him a first call-up by IR Iran coach Dragan Skocic.

Did you know?

Ulsan lost an entertaining game 3-1 to Monterrey on their Club World Cup debat at Japan 2012, with Lee Keunho getting their goal. A 3-2 defeat by home team Sanfrecce Hiroshima followed in the match for fifth place.

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