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Dec 13, 2010

Asian Mourinho out to upset Rafa

If under-fire Rafa Benitez is hoping for a gentle few days in the sun at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi over the next few days, the Inter Milan boss may be in for a shock when he watches his team take on Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma on Wednesday. The Koreans are led by Shin Tae-yong, the man known as the 'Asian Mourinho', who is looking to cement his place as the eastern Special One by defeating the original's successor. Italy has fallen foul of Asian teams in past World Cups but in the club version, the east hasn't managed to get one over on a European giant as yet. But with an out-of-form Nerazzurri taking on Shin's hungry Seongnam, a good year for Asian football could yet end on a high. The K-League team showed their class in brushing aside the challenge of local lads Al Wahda on Saturday to win 4-1 and disappoint 35,000 passionate fans at Zayed Sports City Stadium. The Falcons qualified as a representative of the host nation but the Korean team did it the hard way - by winning the Asian Champions League. The crown was clinched in Tokyo last month as Seongnam defeated Zob Ahan of Iran 3-1. The experience gained from that eight-month long tournament was on display in the Middle East as despite allowing Al Wahda to equalise, the team that sports a Pegasus as a logo kept their cool to win at a canter. That means that the famous blue and black stripes will be faced with the bright yellow shirts and new 'lucky' red shorts sported by the K-League team. The result wasn't a surprise. Al Wahda's pedigree pales in comparison to that of the seven-time Korean champions and two-time continental winners - only Pohang Steelers have lifted the Asian title more. Seongnam are even stronger than they were when triumphing in Japan. Not only are the suspended duo Dzenan Radoncic, formerly of Partizan Belgrade, and Jeon Kwang-Jin available, Hong Chul is back from Asian Games duty and international stars Kim Jung-Woo and Choi Sung-Kuk have finished their military service. When you add the talented Colombian crafter Mauricio Molina, Asian player of the Year Sasa Ognenovski and Korea's number one goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryeong to the mix, then you have a formidable outfit in Asian terms. On Wednesday we will get an idea of what that means in a global context. In 2010 so far it has meant a good deal and it has been a successful year for Asian football. We have seen young players such as Shinji Kagawa and Lee Chung-yong thrive in Germany and England and we have seen Keisuke Honda become one of the hottest properties around We also saw Japan and South Korea defeat past European champions Denmark and Greece in South Africa and defeat them well. The two East Asian giants made it to the second round for the first time at an overseas World Cup and could easily have gone a stage further. Now it is time for some Asian club success. Urawa Reds gave AC Milan a tough game in 2007, Gamba Osaka scored three, though conceded five, against Manchester United a year later and in the 2009 version, Pohang Steelers had three men sent off while losing a highly entertaining match 2-1 to Estudiantes. All won praise for their efforts but fans are starting to get a little bored of plucky losers and honourable defeats. In the past, Asian sides were delighted just to make it through the tournament to face whichever European giant was waiting. Now though, a team like Seongnam, with their brash young coach are no longer satisfied with just sharing a pitch with prestigious opposition. They want to win. In fact, they are desperate to do so. Shin is just 40 and compared to many of his East Asian peers is happy to share his opinions with members of the media. He has quickly become well-known around Asia for not just leading the team to the continental title in just his second season as a coach but also for such comments as 'I was pretty arrogant as a player but now having won the Asian title, I must be pretty great after all.' He used to be known as 'Mr. Seongnam' for his 12 year-stint as a midfielder for the club. That ended in 2004, after a defeat in the final of that year's Asian Champions League. A move to Australia and Queensland Roar followed. Injury cut that short but he joined the club as an assistant coach and whatever he learned down under has served him well so far in Asia. In true Mourinho style, he is gunning for the team that Jose led to the UEFA Champions League title in May. "We want to defeat the world's number one in Inter Milan, though it is a great challenge for us to confront them and to achieve an unexpected result in this match and become the first Asian club to get to the finals at the Club World Cup," said Shin. If such a thing were to come to pass, it could cost the under-fire Rafa Benitez his job, it that is not lost already. That would be unfortunate for the former Liverpool boss but it would certainly do the reputation of Asian football no harm at all.

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