A humiliating exit in the last 16 a year ago and two controversial penalties which rescued a 2-2 draw in the Garden City a week ago mean anything except a rosy welcome is expected when Al Ain take on Esteghlal in Tehran on Monday evening.
The Boss are preparing for a crucial AFC Champions League encounter against the backdrop of what is expected to be a poisonous atmosphere at the cavernous 100,000 capacity Azadi Stadium, with Iranian press reporting in the lead-up to the game that the Group D match could be marred by hooliganism.
Malaysian referee Mohd Amirul Izwan bin Yaacob awarded two penalties to Al Ain at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday – one of which was missed by Marcus Berg, with the second scored by Ahmed Khalil in the 89th minute to earn the hosts a priceless 2-2 draw.
That, coupled with a humiliating 6-1 hammering in the UAE in the second leg of the first knockout round last May after they had won the home leg 1-0 in Tehran, has fired up the home fans ahead of this crucial clash.
In addition, Iranian New Year or ‘Nowruz’, being celebrated on March 21 and a prelude to the country’s independence on April 1, has initiated fears that fireworks could be brought to the game and let off by excited home fans.
Whatever the reception awaiting his team, Al Ain talisman Omar Abdulrahman insists the visitors will be able to cope with a charged atmosphere.
“We are well aware our task will not be easy against Esteghlal in front of their home fans, but we are a great team and have the ability, expertise and capabilities to face all the challenges ahead of us, whatever the circumstances,” said the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“We come to Tehran in order to win and return with three points, which enhances our chances to claim one of the two qualifying spots in the group.”
On the tone set by the Iranian press ahead of the match, Abdulrahman, who scored two of the six Al Ain goals in the second leg 10 months ago, added: “The players are accustomed to dealing with such matters.
“We have a strong desire to win and a great fighting spirit and experience to face all possible circumstances and our response to them will be in the field. We as players trust in our ability to achieve our ambitions.”
The Asian Football Confederation has warned Iran’s football federation (Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran) that the club could face a two-year ban from the continental competition should there be a repeat of the issues from a year ago.
Esteghlal were fined $51,000 after fans flashed laser beams at opposing players and referees during their Champions League qualifier against Qatar’s Al Sadd in February and again in a group stage game against Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in March.
Fans also hurled “missiles which caused explosions” in the Lokomotiv game which caused the stadium to be evacuated and earned them the fine and a warning.
A specialist security official has even been appointed by the AFC for the game while strongly-worded warnings have been issued to the club by the FFIRI.
The draw last time out was Al Ain’s third in a row but could prove crucial to their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage in a group no-one apparently wants to win – with just one victory recorded in the opening six matches.
They are third on three points, level with Qatar’s Al Rayyan, and only two points adrift of Monday’s opponents, who are the only side in the group to win a game, in addition to two draws.
The Boss will be without Brazilian wideman Caio for the trip due to injury, but Abdulrahman added his confidence in coach Zoran Mamic to come up with a plan to enable Al Ain to win.
“I think the positives are on our side and the negatives are reflected on the opposing team. Coach Zoran has a good technical reading of the ideal way to face this team and get the best result in Tehran.”
Esteghlal coach Winfried Schaefer understands there is likely to still be a lot of anger prominent in the stands after the way they had victory taken away from them a week ago, but he insisted his players will not put undue pressure on the match official.
“I read some reports published by newspapers in English which spoke about justice and accusing the officials in the previous match of not adhering to the rules of the game but I remain supportive of them and thank God I am not a referee,” said German Schaefer, who coached Al Ain from 2007-09.
“My players have a good personality and need to deal with all circumstances professionally. They will not be affected by messages of the media because it is possible to make mistakes and we too make mistakes in football.
“I hope to see the stadium full of encouragement because we have to defend the reputation of Iranian football.”
Al Ain overcame a few early scares and initial woe in front of goal to surge into the AFC Champions League group stages on Tuesday night as the Boss brushed aside Bahraini champions Malkiya.
Zoran Mamic’s hosts were fortunate to be in this position having finished outside the ACL qualification spots in fourth during last season’s Arabian Gulf League.
But they were given a shot at redemption when new outfit Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club failed to get an AFC licence – clubs need to be in existence for at least two years to get one, meaning Mamic’s men got into the play-offs.
Once here though, they grabbed the opportunity with both hands, eventually.
But it was the away side who started the brighter of the two. Ahmed Al Dakheel, whose side won their first-ever Bahraini Premier League title last season, will have wondered how his team failed to take the lead in the 20th minute when a deep cross to the back post found Issa Al Wahab ghosting past his marker at the back post, the wideman leapt but his header from yards out bounced down and over the bar, somehow.
That shook the home side into life and captain Omar Abdulrahman – eligible to play as his four-match ban issued for breaking curfew on international duty is only domestic – thought he’d scored when he bent a brilliant shot goalwards, with ‘keeper Abdulkarim Fardan beaten, but so was the post.
Back came Malkiya on the counter-attack and striker Sayed Hashim somehow escaped the clutches of both Mohanad Salem and Mohammed Ahmed and audaciously tried to chip Khalid Essa, but the Boss stopper clawed it behind for a corner.
Swedish striker Marcus Berg then blazed over before impressive January acquisition Hussein El Shahat came closest to breaking the deadlock when he collected an astute Abdulrahman pass inside the area and dummied defender Sayed Adnan; he prodded goalwards but twice-capped Nigeria international Gege Soriola slid in superbly to clear off the line.
It appeared a goal would never come minutes after the restart when the lively Caio centered for Berg who failed to connect while from the resulting corner, the Brazilian winger nodded tamely at Fardan.
But eight minutes into the second period, Al Ain finally found the key to unlock the Malkiya defence, and it was new man El Shahat who opened the door.
The ball was played wide and the Egyptian midfielder delivered an inch-perfect first-time cross into the middle, it was on a plate for Berg who calmly sidefooted home much to the relief of the majority inside Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Another eight minutes later and the Boss’ passage into the group stages were effectively sealed, with El Shahat again the architect.
It came via another superb cross from the right flank, El Shahat this time going to the air, Caio arriving and stooping to send an unstoppable header home.
Mamic’s side will be joined in competition proper by UAE rivals Al Jazira, Al Wasl and Al Wahda when the tournament starts in 12 days’ time.
Al Ain have drawn a huge sigh of relief as their star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman is eligible to take the field Tuesday night in their crucial AFC Champions League play-off clash against Bahrain’s Malkiya.
Amoory is currently serving a four-match domestic ban imposed by the UAE FA after leaving the national team’s hotel the night before the Arabian Gulf Cup final loss to Oman in December.
It’s a second stroke of good fortune for the Boss who are lucky to even be in the qualifying stages for the ACL after finishing outside the qualification spots in the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League.
But since the new merger club, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, failed to get an AFC license in time, Al Ain were given their spot. Clubs need to be in existence for at least two years to qualify for the ACL.
The Boss have previous success in the tournament being the UAE’s only ACL champs, winning the very first final back in 2002/03 when they edged out BEC Tero from Bangkok 2–1 on aggregate.
Malkiya, based in Riffa, won their first-ever Bahraini title last season and currently sit third on the table.
“The opposing team includes young players and provides good levels so we have to show our real strength,” said Al Ain coach, Croatian Zoran Mamic.
“If we want to qualify we have to show the spirit and fight against the opponent until we manage to secure our place in Group D.”
It’s all or nothing on the night as the play-off is decided over just one leg, with extra-time and penalties if necessary, with the winner going through to the ACL Group stages.
“My confidence in Al Ain players and their high potential is very great” continued Mamic, “but such confrontations require special focus because there is no room for compensation and the experience of players is very important.”
Al Ain mid-fielder Hussein Al-Shahat is determined to perform well as the match represents his first appearance in the continental tournament.
“We respect the aspirations of the opposing team and we will deal with the high concentration throughout the game,” he said.