Al Ain will take the chance to fight another day as their 10-men held on at home after seeing centre-back Mohanad Salem sent off.
The scoreline reads 0-0 but this was anything but a dour draw as both sides had goals ruled out while two of the best and busiest players on the pitch were both goalkeepers.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic was pleased with the result, especially as Al Hilal are two games into their Saudi Pro League campaign.
The Croatian said: “Al Hilal have played two games. I didn’t want to make excuses before the game but we can see they have played two games more.
“The result is ok for both teams. We are satisfied with the result. To not concede at home is very important. We have some games before the next leg and the players will get much more competitive games and we will be ready for the return in Riyadh.
“There will be a great atmosphere in their stadium and hopefully Al Ain will go into the semi-final.”
Although Crescent counterpart Ramon Diaz was disappointed not to take advantage of the extra man in the second half, he was at pains to point out the significance of the two legs.
“We tried to make use of the man advantage. We had two chances to win it but they did not translate into goals. Al Ain closed all the gaps and relied heavily on their counter-attacks,” said the Argentine.
“It is a 180-minute match and we are waiting for the second one and hopefully we will qualify from that. We have another 90 minutes and we will do our best to win it.”
Unlike most games played here at the Hazza bin Zayed, the atmosphere was rocking for an AFC Champions League clash between two of West Asia’s powerhouses.
Two boisterous sets of fans set the scene with a barrage of noise before kick-off and the players certainly didn’t disappoint, with the game adopting a breakneck pace from the off.
In one frantic minute, Mohamed Abdulrahman flashed a drive just wide before Omar Khrbin let fly at the other end but sent his effort straight down Khalid Essa’s throat.
Syrian striker Khrbin, well known in these parts following his impressive stint at Al Dhafra, found the net after just 12 minutes, although his was rightly ruled out for offside – the 23-year-old rifled into the roof of the net but was clearly ahead of play following Carlos Eduardo’s overhead kick.
Thirteen minutes later, Douglas, back from the dead in the Garden City, must have felt he’d sprouted wings when he flung himself at Omar Abdulrahman’s fine delivery to stab home for the Boss, but the linesman’s flag robbed him of what would have been a deserved strike. Replays showed it was a tight call that could easily have gone the other way.
Abdullah Al Maiouf began to stockpile a clutch of saves that would earn him the man of the match award when he parried Amoory’s strike behind after he was sent clear. Then Osama Hawsawi flung himself bravely into the path of Marcus Berg’s shot to deny the Swede a goal on his competitive debut after Douglas had done well to nod a cross down into his path.
Salem was to receive an ominous yellow card on the stroke of half time for deliberately tugging Khrbin back who would have otherwise been in on goal.
Two quick yellow cards early in the second half whipped the crowd up into a frenzy again. Abdullah Al Hafith collected one initially for barging Amoory over close to goal, while the levels ratcheted up again when Saudi Arabia international Salman Al Faraj was also booked for protesting.
Who knows how loud the noise levels would have reached had Amoory found the top corner from the resulting free-kick – his effort somehow clawed out by Al Maiouf.
Then came the moment the Boss feared might tip the game in Hilal’s favour. There was barely any contact as Salem slid in on Al Faraj, but with the experienced UAE centre-back on a yellow, it was foolish to say the least.
The hosts took a little time to find their bearings after that and Matias Britos inexplicably headed against his own arm when Eduardo’s brilliant delivery found him unmarked six yards out.
Al Ain had a great chance to win it five minutes from the end when Douglas rose delightfully to meet Amoory’s inviting cross. He did everything right but somehow, again, Al Maiouf palmed away his effort.
Mamic’s men were fortunate to hold onto the result late on as first Yasir Al Shahrani saw his fierce effort tipped behind by Essa, before left-back Mohammed Jahfali wasted the best chance of the game when he ghosted in at the back post to meet a cross but ballooned his header horribly over.
They may be the away team, but Zoran Mamic is under no elusion that Al Hilal will be coming to Al Ain for all three points on Monday night.
Two of the biggest teams in West Asia clash at what is likely to be a raucous Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, as the AFC Champions League quarter-finals get underway.
It will be a prelude to the 2017/18 domestic season for the Boss, which kicks off with an Arabian Gulf Cup game against Hatta on September 4, with the Arabian Gulf League getting underway at home to Al Wasl on September 16.
The Crescent, meanwhile, are already two games into their Saudi Pro League campaign, and Ramon Diaz’s men sit top of the table following two wins.
They arrive in the Garden City without the services of playmakers Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, but Al Ain coach Mamic does not expect that to blunt their attacking threat.
“It is difficult to talk about the opposing team’s strategy because each coach has his own thoughts,” said the 45-year-old Croat.
“We realise that our task will not be easy and we will make sure to adopt an attacking approach to face Al Hilal, who I do not think will adopt a method of defense because they are the visiting side.”
Despite the two sides being at different stages of match fitness with Hilal two games into their season, Mamic warned the visitors that the ACL is a very different competition.
“I have told my team that this will be a new challenge and it will also be completely different from the Saudi league competition,” he said.
— Al Ain FC (@alainfcae) August 20, 2017
Mamic is likely to give a start to summer singing Marcus Berg. The Swedish striker has been hitting the back of the net with regularity during pre-season and the former Panathinaikos and Hamburg striker admits he’s settled to life well in the UAE.
“The truth is since I joined Al Ain the team has welcomed me impressively and I’ve been treated superbly by my teammates from the beginning, as well as by the coach and administrative staff,” said Berg, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Thursday.
The two sides meet in the competition for the first time since Al Ain were dumped out of the 2014 semi-finals. The damage was done in the first leg in Riyadh in which the Boss were blitzed 3-0 by a Nasser Al Shamrani-inspired Hilal.
Al Ain, who were defeated by South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in last year’s final, are looking to lift a trophy they last hoisted in 2003. Although they have never won in the current ACL era, Hilal are two-time former winners of the tournament in its previous Asian Club Championship guise – champions in 1991 and 2000.
Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz predictably singled out Al Ain maverick Omar Abdulrahman as the man his players will most fear tonight, but the Argentine has warned his men not to forget the Boss’ other talents in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final.
‘Amoory’ will be key to his team’s chances of progress in the competition – he has five goals in this year’s competition – the second most behind Persepolis’ Mehdi Taremi.
Abdulrahman is picking up from where he left off in 2016 – the 25-year-old collected a remarkable eight man-of-the-matches as he led Al Ain to the final – and Diaz says his side are wary of the frizzy-haired magician.
“Amoory is the superstar of Al Ain and has high skill, but I cannot devote all my concentration to him,” he said.
“On the contrary, my team will play putting all players under pressure.”
Diaz will be without two of his own key playmakers in Saudi Arabia international Nawaf Al Abed and Uruguay schemer Nicolas Milesi – the latter of who was taken off after 33 minutes of Hilal’s entertaining 4-3 Saudi Pro League win against Al Taawoun.
He added: “It is true we will miss Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, two good players, but we have the bench ready to prove their abilities on the pitch.”
Diaz led the Crescent to a record-extending 15th Saudi league crown last season and he wants more titles with Hilal, although he is just focusing on this first leg.
“I’m glad I succeeded in getting my league title with the club, my team is ready to bring more tournaments, but we must not get ahead of events,” he said.
“We have now 180 minutes to reach the semi-final, but Al Ain are a good team. All I can say is that our team is well prepared and everyone is focused.”
Former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic claims the criticism striker Douglas received following his penalty miss in last year’s AFC Champions League final was undeserved, and he is happy to see him back in Boss colours.
Douglas, 29, was deregistered by the club at the start of 2017 following a crisis of confidence in the wake of his critical miss during defeat to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Douglas blazed horribly over just before half time after Danilo Asprilla had been scythed down – his miss crucial as Al Ain drew the second leg of the final at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium 1-1, which saw Jeonbuk lift the trophy 3-2 on aggregate.
The club had been looking to offload the broken Brazillian, but brought him back in from the cold after he featured in just seven games after his spot kick woe.
He is now likely to start tomorrow’s quarter-final first leg tie against Al Hilal in the Garden City alongside summer arrival Marcus Berg. And the man who brought him to the UAE from Japan’s Tokushima Vortis is delighted to see him back.
“We brought Douglas to Al Ain as the best player of the Japanese League. He did not deserve that kind of pressure from the fans,” Dalic, who left Al Ain in January in the wake of their final heartache, told the-afc.com.
“He had not found a way of wrestling off that pressure and he fell under it as did the management of the club. I am very happy he is back where he belongs, in the team of Al Ain, he deserves (to be successful) as a player and also as a person.”
Dalic won the Arabian Gulf Super Cup, Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup with the Boss and also coached the Crescent to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Cup in 2013.
And after both clubs have featured in two of the last three ACL finals, the Croat feels it is time for a UAE or Saudi club to finally lift the continent’s biggest club football prize.
“It is about time the final is won by one of these teams,” he said.
“Because in the last three years all finals played were lost by clubs from this region; Al Hilal, Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai) and Al Ain. They were defeated by clubs from Australia, China and South Korea.
“Both teams have big ambitions in this tournament, last season Al Ain were in the final and Al Hilal were there three years ago. It will be a big clash.”
Dalic could not pick a winner from his two former clubs, choosing instead to sit on the fence for what is sure to be a packed house at the Hazza. But he does feel Hilal must head back to Riyadh having secured an away goal.
“Chances are 50-50, both teams have the same problem – both legs come at the very beginning of the season. Both teams have a lot of experience of what is it like to be in the AFC Champions League,” said Dalic.
“Both teams have a lot of quality players, in this match the game changer will not be an individual but the whole team as a unit.
“The stadium will be packed, so many passionate fans can only be strength, motivation and big support to the team. Al Hilal have great fans and I witnessed that a couple of times.
“It is always important in the away games to achieve at least one goal. To achieve a positive result which will give hope for the home game. This match-up is about teams of close quality and both matches will be important.”