Ulsan Hyundai Motors won the Asian Champions League for the second time in history after a Junior Negrao double gave them a 2-1 victory over Iran’s Persepolis on Saturday.
The South Korean giants also achieved the feat in record fashion, winning their ninth consecutive match in the tournament to equal their winning streak of 2012 when they won the title for the first time.
But this time they were even more emphatic, scoring at least two goals in each match on their way to the title, an unprecedented achievement in the tournament.
Persepolis missed out on the Asian crown for the second time in three years, having lost to Japan’s Kashima Antlers in the final in 2018.
This was the fifth time in history that a team from Iran had fallen at the final hurdle of Asia’s premier competition, thus extending the country’s title drought on the continental club scene since 1993.
Persepolis had topped from Asia’s west zone in Qatar’s bio-secure bubble after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Asian Football Confederation to halt the tournament in March.
Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, the 2019 champions, were kicked out during the group phase after a spate of coronavirus infections in the squad left them without enough fit players, easing Persepolis’ path to the final.
While Ulsan had played eight games in 23 days in Doha before Saturday’s final, Persepolis had three weeks off and only arrived in Qatar a few days ago.
The Iranians though battled gallantly on Saturday, not only keeping the marauding Ulsan forwards at bay but also drawing first blood at Qatar’s Al Janoub Stadium, built for the 2022 World Cup.
At the stroke of half-time, Ulsan defender Park Soo-ho lost his balance in the midfield and Mehdi Abdi displayed great awareness to steal the ball and produce a brilliant solo run before beating goalkeeper Jo Soo-huk to the bottom left corner.
Ulsan, however hit back in the fourth minute of first-half stoppage time after they were awarded a VAR-assisted penalty when Ahmad Noorollahi fouled Yoon Bit-Garam inside the box.
Negrao couldn’t believe his luck as goalkeeper Hamed Lak blocked his spot-kick with a full-stretch dive, but the ball rebounded in the Brazilian's direction and he was left with the easiest of tap-ins to score his sixth goal of the tournament.
Ulsan had their tail up after that but they required another VAR-assisted penalty to score their second goal in the 55th minute
Mehdi Shiri handled the ball as Ulsan pressed forward and this time Negrao made no mistake from the spot, sending goalkeeper Lak in the other direction.
Coach Kim Do-hoon couldn’t hide his emotions after guiding Ulsan to victory, having experienced the pain of losing the 2004 final when he was playing for Seongnam Illhwa Chunma.
That year his team squandered a 3-1 first leg away win advantage to suffer a 5-0 thrashing by Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad at home to finish runners-up
“I am very proud of this team. The players did their best. I would like to thank the club who trusted me a lot,” said Kim, who also paid his respects to his father who died this year.
“My father passed away this season but I am sure he was watching over us from above.”
Persepolis coach Yahya Golmohmmadi said lapses in concentration cost them the match.
“We did not concede goals for a long time except in the penalties and that was the case again today. We gave them two easy chances to score,” he said.
“I am really sad and apologise to all Persepolis fans. We need to improve our team for the 2021 Champions League.”