They say, third’s time the charm. And South Korean giants Ulsan Hyundai embody that spirit on the pitch of the Al-Wakrah Sports Complex on Saturday night as the clinched the 2020 AFC Champions League title. Having faltered at the last hurdle in both the 2020 K League 1 title race and the 2020 Korean FA Cup final, there was no further heartbreak for Ulsan in the ACL final. Two goals from Brazilian striker Junior Negrao was enough for the Horang-i to see off the challenge of Iran’s Persepolis FC, with the 2-1 victory sealing Ulsan their second ACL title.
It was truly the meeting between the irresistible force and the unmovable object in Qatar on Saturday, with 2012 ACL winners Ulsan entering the final having won all 8 of their ACL matches so far after the competition’s restart. They will be facing off against a mean Persepolis defense which has only conceded two goals en route to the final, both of them from the spot.
With a limited audience of 8,517 people watching on from the stands, Ulsan went straight for the offensive after kick-off, displaying the same attacking flair that had taken them so far in the competition. In the 10th minute, Negrao performed an excellent back-heeled pass to teammate Yoon Bit-garam, who curled in an effort that struck the goalpost and into touch – signaling the intent that the South Koreans have for this match.
Persepolis were unwilling to be outdone by that and shortly afterwards gave a response from the right flank. Bashar Resan passed the ball to Ahmad Noorollahi, who then attempted to finish things off from inside the Ulsan penalty box. Fortunately for the Hyundai Heavy Industry-backed team, Dutch defender Dave Bulthuis was on-hand to deflect the ball behind.
Negrao tested the Iranian defense once again, welcoming a cross from Kim Tae-hwan with a powerful header. However, the crossbar was in the way of the header and Persepolis can breathe a sigh of relief. The Iranians were further relieved by the prowess of goalkeeper Hamed Lak in between the sticks, with Lak performing an admirable save to deny a long-ranged shot from Yoon.
With the first half drawing to a close, it was Persepolis who drew first blood. Ulsan defender Park Joo-ho lost his footing at the worst of places, allowing Mehdi Abdi Qara to seize the loose ball deep within Ulsan territory and drill home the opener past Ulsan goalie Jo Su-huk.
Jolted into life by the opener, Ulsan immediately pushed forward for the equalizer and four minutes into stoppage-time, their efforts were rewarded. Noorollahi clumsily fouled Yoon inside the penalty box, prompting the referee to consult the video assistant referee (VAR). After reviewing the incident through the VAR, the referee pointed to the spot – a penalty for Ulsan right at the end of the first half.
Negrao was given the task of taking the penalty and although Lak managed to parry the incoming penalty, the Iranian goalkeeper was powerless to stop Negrao from pouncing on the rebound, enabling Ulsan to draw things level right in the stroke of half-time.
The second half saw Persepolis conceding another penalty, this time after Mehdi Shiri had handled an Ulsan cross inside the Persepolis penalty box in the 55th minute. Once again consulting the VAR to review the incident, the referee then awarded Ulsan a second spot-kick with Negrao once again being given the task of executing it. This time the former Muangthong United and Pattaya United striker made no mistakes from 12 yards out, dispatching a powerful shot that went past Lak to give Ulsan the lead.
Now trailing by a goal, Persepolis tried their best to chase the game for the reminder of the match. Despite dominating possession, the Iranian giants were left disappointed after Abdi Qara’s header went wide and Noorollahi failed in his redemption arc after his shot was canceled out by Jo.
In the end Ulsan managed to hang onto their advantage all the way into full-time and after the heartbreaks that they’ve suffered in the domestic front throughout 2020, the tigers of Ulsan were able to finally celebrate at the final whistle. Ulsan captain Sin Jin-ho led his teammates to the podium before hoisting the ACL trophy aloft, cementing the club’s second continental title in their history. Yoon was named MVP of the tournament after his impressive displays as Ulsan’s midfield dynamo especially after the tournament’s restart, while Negrao finished as co-top scorers of this year’s ACL alongside Abderrazak Hamdallah of Saudi Arabian giants Al-Nassr, however the latter won the overall Golden Boot as he had played in fewer minutes compared to Negrao.
The ACL triumph also qualified Ulsan to the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup, where they will rub shoulders with the likes of Bundesliga titans Bayern Munich (2019-20 UEFA Champions League winners) and Egyptian behemoths Al-Ahly (2019-20 CAF Champions League winners).
Ulsan’s ACL triumph was a bittersweet moment for head coach Kim Do-hoon, who has decided to step down from his role with the club at the end of his contract. Do-hoon was able to leave Ulsan with his head held up high, however, as his last match with the Horang-i culminated with them winning the biggest prize of Asian club football.