Tsukasa Shiotani scored a sublime goal to rescue a point for Al Ain in a 1-1 draw with Esteghlal in Tehran – a fourth straight draw for the Boss in this season’s AFC Champions League.
After coming from behind twice to seal a 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium a week ago in a game that saw the hosts awarded two controversial penalties, it was the hosts who were this time the recipients of a generous refereeing decision when Hong Kong official Kwok Man Liu pointed to the spot in the 39th minute.
Contact looked minimal between visiting defender Ismail Ahmed and Farshid Esmaeili, with replays proving the Iranian midfielder had thrown himself theatrically at the UAE international, while any contact had actually occurred outside the box.
But Senegal striker Mame Thiam confidently stroked home the spot-kick for his third goal in two games against the Boss to give his side the lead at a raucous Azadi Stadium, where the attendance was 90,000.
But Al Ain kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the last 16 when Japan’s Shiotani played a smart one-two with youngster Rayan Yaslam to curl beyond Seyed Hosseini with his weaker right foot with 12 minutes remaining.
Both sides pushed for a winner but Marcus Berg fired wide when in a good spot 12 yards out before Khalid Essa beat out substitute Ali Ghorbani’s stoppage time shot.
The away side came into this crunch clash amid a backdrop of animosity, following events in the Garden City last week.
Esteghlal, managed by former Al Ain coach Winfried Schaefer, were also set to be out for revenge after a 6-1 hammering in the second leg of last year’s last 16 between these sides, a result which had followed a 1-0 victory for the hosts in Tehran.
They had Zoran Mamic’s men under the cosh from the start with visitors seemingly keen to soak up home pressure and settle themselves amidst a vociferous atmosphere.
Once they overcame a lively start from the hosts, Shiotani served notice of his power as he unleashed a fierce strike from distance following a corner that whistled past keeper Seyed Hosseini’s near post.
The pressure was coming mainly from the hosts but the best chances were falling to the Boss and talisman Omar Abdulrahman almost silenced the home crowd when his wonderful curled effort was brushed onto the bar by Hosseini.
Just as they were beginning to get a grip on the game, Al Ain fell behind in farcical circumstances.
Esmaeili went over the leg offered by Ahmed even though there was no contact and it was just outside, but the referee pointed to the spot much to the ire of the Al Ain players, with keeper Essa booked for protesting where the ball was positioned.
After several minutes of furious debate, Thiam tucked away the spot kick coolly.
Marcus Berg couldn’t get set and Hosseini blocked his weak effort early in the second half. Minutes later Daryoush Shojaeian fired tamely at Essa. Young Al Ain star Yaslam then curled just wide in the 73rd minute but the 23-year-old then exchanged passes with Shiotani as the defender fired his side level.
Elsewhere, Al Wahda kept alive their slim hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds with a maiden win in the Group B clash with Iran’s Zob Ahan.
The Clarets, pointless prior to the game following three straight defeats, swept to a 3-0 win at Zayed Sports City. Argentine talisman Sebastian Tagliabue put them in front on the stroke of half-time from Balazs Dzsudzsak’s assist, before the Hungary winger then teed up Mourad Batna for a second three minutes before the hour mark. Batna then set up Mohamed Al Akbari to wrap up the win and a priceless three points eight minutes later.
Laurentiu Reghecampf’s side are now level on points with Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent after they lost 2-1 at home to Qatari group leaders Al Duhail.
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.