Proud Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic praised his troops for silencing the fevered 90,000-strong crowd at Tehran’s daunting Azadi Stadium – but is aware the “time has come to win” after they registered a fourth-successive draw in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
The Boss showed tremendous character to rebound from Senegalese forward Mame Thiam’s generous first-half penalty for Esteghlal. Their valiant efforts were rewarded with less than 15 minutes left when Japan utility man Tsukasa Shiotani curled a sublime effort with his weaker right foot past Hossein Hosseini to stun the partisan support crammed into one of the world’s largest stadiums.
This moved the winless 2002/03 champions onto four points in a tight Group D, two points behind Monday’s hosts and Michael Laudrup’s Al Rayyan following their impressive 2-1 triumph against 2017’s beaten finalists Al Hilal.
Victory against the latter-mentioned outfit is a pressing need when the competition resumes on April 2.
“A positive result for us in front of 90,000 fans and I think all the Group D teams are still there,” said Mamic, whose troops had played out a rollercoaster 2-2 draw at home versus the same opponents last week.
“There are only two games left and the time has come to win to ensure we qualify for the knockouts.
“I was very happy with the atmosphere in the stadium. We witnessed a massive crowd and any football player would love that.
“It’s hard to experience that in every game, and I talked with my players before the game to get into the match and have fun.
“The truth is that I have followed several matches of Esteghlal and collected a lot of information about the opponent before the meeting.
“It is normal for the coach to analyse the strengths and weaknesses and then build the method.
“It was not easy at this ground, but my team did well and deserve to be congratulated.”
Opposite number Winfried Schafer had won the President’s Cup, Arabian Gulf Cup and Arabian Gulf Super Cup at Al Ain from 2007-09. He was impressed with his former charge’s “strong desire”.
He said: “Al Ain against Esteghlal was a very good game.
“In the first half, we managed to put high pressure on Al Ain and managed to get the lead, but in the second half the opponent showed a strong desire to equalise.”
Al Ain will next look to protect their four-point lead in the Arabian Gulf League when they visit distant holders Al Jazira on Saturday.
A depleted Al Jazira were denied a valuable victory in their quest to escape Group A from the 2018 AFC Champions League when Farzad Hatami nodded in Tractor Sazi’s first goal to secure a 1-1 draw.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi travelled to Tabriz for the return fixture from last week’s goalless stalemate without a number of injured and suspended stars, this list being headlined by UAE strikers Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Al Attas. Brazilian forward Romarinho led the line in their absence and he plundered the 44th-minute opener, against the run of play.
The summer addition from Qatar’s El Jaish latched onto a long ball from experienced defender Musallem Fayez and lashed in a second goal in four continental games.
Tuesday’s hosts at Yadegar-e Emam Stadium were desperate to secure the victory required to boost waning hopes of progression to the round of 16. After several chances went begging, towering striker Hatami nodded in an inviting cross from Ehsan Pahlevan – who had earlier shot just wide of the far post when clear through.
Tractor bombarded the visitor’s goal in the final minutes, UAE No1 Ali Khaseif performing redoubtably to keep them out.
This result left the bottom-placed hosts on the brink of elimination.
Jazira remain firmly in the hunt for two of three qualification spots with Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Gharafa – whom they meet next in Doha on April 3.
Al Wasl 0-1 Persepolis
Al Wasl’s return to the AFC Champions League after a decade away was guaranteed to end in the group stage thanks to Kamal Kamyabinia’s lone goal for Iran’s Persepolis on Tuesday.
Kamyabinia’s 37th-minute header inflicted a fourth defeat from four games in Group C, leaving the Cheetahs to lick their wounds.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men next travel to Qatar to face Xavi’s Al Sadd on April 2 knowing they cannot progress.
Al Wasl and UAE defensive midfielder Ali Salmeen is insistent his club are not feeling the pressure of their do-or-die 2018 AFC Champions League clash against Iran behemoth’s Persepolis.
Tuesday’s hosts in Dubai have lost all three Group C matches – including a 2-0 defeat in last week’s reverse game – to make it a painful return to Asia’s top table after a decade away.
They must avoid another defeat to the dominant Persian Gulf Pro League holders and last year’s continental semi-finalists to keep dreams of progression to the round of 16 on life support, with hopes further addled by a crash in form that leaves them winless in five matches from all competitions.
“I don’t have pressure,” said 23-year-old midfielder Salmeen. “I trust and believe in my team to make a great match and win the three points, because we know this is our last hope to qualify for the second-round matches.
“There is 90 minutes and we have to fight and win.”
Opponents Persepolis sit top of a tight pool in which themselves, Xavi’s Al Sadd and Uzbekistan’s Nasaf possess six points to Wasl’s zero.
Their ex-Al Wahda boss Branko Ivankovic, 64, is determined to earn another shot at ACL glory.
He said: “It was a great honour to reach the semi-finals in Asia last year. We will definitely try to get out of the group stage – and not stop there.
“Al Wasl are a big team and I think they have the best organisation among UAE teams. They have fought to be champions of the UAE.”
Wasl’s descent threatens both their current Asian prospects and hopes of qualifying next year through the Arabian Gulf League.
Tactician Rodolfo Arruabarrena blamed the draining effects of injuries that have afflicted the likes of 12-goal striker Caio Canedo.
He said: “Although we are last in the group, mathematically we can still do a good job and it is possible to progress. But we also have so many injuries, which makes problems for our team to make up the deficit.
“As a coach, I have to choose which competitions we have the best chance in.”
Tractor Sazi v Al Jazira
Al Jazira coach Henk ten Cate has urged his depleted attack not to spurn any chances as they gun for a vital victory at scoreless Iran strugglers Tractor Sazi.
A lengthy list of absentees for Group A’s second-placed side in the 2018 AFC Champions League features UAE hot shots Ali Mabkhout and Ahmed Al Attas.
“I hope we are good tomorrow and take advantage of any opportunities,” said boss Ten Cate about the trip to bottom-placed opponents. “A positive result will enhance our chances of qualifying for the next phase.”