As Pohang Steelers continue underdog story, a fourth Asian crown could be their greatest yet

Pohang Steelers booked their spot in the AFC Champions League 2021 final by beating defending champions Ulsan Hyundai 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in Wednesday's semifinal. Seong Joon Cho / Power Sport Images for The AFC

History will be made in this year's AFC Champions League with the competition certain to crown record four-time champions of Asia.

After Al Hilal advanced into next month's final on Tuesday with a 2-1 triumph over fellow Saudi Arabian outfit Al Nassr, South Korea's Pohang Steelers followed suit on Wednesday evening as they beat 2020 winners and compatriots Ulsan Hyundai 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw at Jeonju World Cup Stadium.

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The nature of their semifinal win epitomised the never-say-die spirit that Pohang have shown throughout the campaign, as the unheralded K League 1 club have repeatedly overcome the odds to close in on a first continental crown since 2009.

Having fallen behind to Yun Il-lok's 52nd minute opener, it looked like the Steelers were on their way out despite playing most of the second half with a numerical advantage following a red card to opposition captain Won Du-jae.

With exactly a minute left on the clock, Pohang defender Alex Grant popped up to equalise with a looping header to send the game into extra-time and then penalties, where Ulsan's Dave Bulthuis -- who had otherwise been faultless all campaign long -- emerged as the fall guy as the only taker to fail to convert from 12 yards.

While teams usually earn plaudits for rampant charges to success, Pohang have instead gained many admirers for their spirited displays in spite of limited resources.

This started right from the group stage when they were the last team in the East Zone to scrape through, as the third and final best-placed runners-up that joined the five group winners in the knockout round.

The Round of 16 saw them toil to a 1-0 win over Cerezo Osaka, before Sunday's quarterfinals produced an anomaly as they produced the one real dominant display of their campaign by defeating Nagoya Grampus 3-0.

The fact that Pohang have hardly had any detractors despite not being one of the competition's standout teams -- at least from a footballing aesthetic point of view -- is testament to the job coach Kim Gi-dong has done.

Quite simply, this is not a side that many expected would get this far.

While the likes of Ulsan and quarterfinalists Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors boast more than their fair share of South Korea internationals, the current Pohang squad can count only four players that have represented the Taegeuk Warriors.

Two of them -- Lim Sang-hyub and Kang Sang-woo -- only have solitary caps to their names, while Oh Beom-seok -- the most-experienced with 43 international appearances to his name but the last coming in 2013 -- is no longer a regular starter for the Steelers at the age of 37.

Even when it comes to the foreign players, Pohang have negotiated their way through the past two matches with just three of their four imports available as striker Borys Tashchy continues to be absent through injury.

Rather than being a team littered with star names, Pohang's run to the ACL final in 2021 has been fuelled by a combination of journeymen who have spent years toiling away from the limelight, and late bloomers who perhaps fell by the wayside initially but have now rediscovered a road to success.

That is perhaps why their underdog story has been as captivating as it is, and it is also why Al Hilal should head into the final on Nov. 23 as the favourites to add to their three continental titles.

Then again, being unfancied has hardly stopped Pohang thus far in their similar quest.