This was a game which spoke volumes about Al Jazira’s current priorities.
With a starting XI devoid of eight regulars and Esteghlal Khuzestan’s winning goal through Aloys Nong conceded after a minute, it is becoming increasingly unavoidable to deduce that progress in the 2017 AFC Champions League is not high on the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s priority list.
Safeguarding a runaway lead in the Arabian Gulf League ahead of imminent clashes with holders Al Ahli and runners-up Al Ain has seemingly been placed at the forefront.
When you also consider premium January addition Leonardo was not even registered for the group stage, the mountain of evidence becomes undeniable. Yet with a nine-point advantage and only seven fixtures to fulfil, is such a conservative approach really required to ensure a first success since 2010/11?
The introduction of UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa and South Korea anchorman Park Jong-woo ensured the President’s Cup champions at least made a fist of it – to their credit – after the break against the shock Persian Gulf Pro League winners.
They even rattled the woodwork through right-back Musallem Fayez’s header, which was matched at the other end by the influential Hassan Beyt Saeed’s thunderous free-kick.
Jazira coach Henk ten Cate was honest about his unalloyed pragmatism post-match. Yet two defeats from two games did not quell optimism.
He said: “I am 100-per-cent sure if we play our regular team, then this Iranian team is not a problem for us. But we are forced to make choices.
“By the way, there are still four games to go [in Group B]. We still have a chance.
“The [Arabian Gulf] League is the most important. We are in a good position and we want to keep it that way.
“Can Al Jazira win the AFC Champions League? My answer is ‘no’. Can Al Jazira win the Arabian Gulf League? My answer is ‘yes’.
“I can understand if the supporters are disappointed. But I have to look to the possibilities we have.”
For Monday night’s visitors, they celebrated like they had won the whole tournament after a perfect start to their first ACL campaign continued.
“I dedicate this win to the people of Khuzestan,” said coach Sirous Pourmousavi. “We can play only against a team we have in front of us, and if Jazira wanted to rest some of their players it’s their problem.”
The supporters in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had barely had time to take to their seats before Nong’s opener. It came from a throw-in from full-back Peyman Shirzadi, which was flicked on by playmakers Arash Afshin and Beyt Saeed prior to the Cameroonian taking full advantage of a sleeping rearguard to volley home.
Advancing Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida then kept trying to force an equalizer, only to be shut out at each turn by an Esteghlal side eager to play containment.
But by the time Boussoufa and Mabkhout were both on the pitch, the lead had come close to being doubled. Only the crossbar kept out Beyt Saeed’s set-piece on 59 minutes.
Fayez’s retorted to no avail, with this near-miss not sparking any sustained attacking pressure.
Jazira also crashed out at this point last year. The same conclusion will not hurt anywhere near as much this time if the AGL crown follows in May.
Lokomotiv Tashkent midfielder Salamat Kutibaev scored the second-fastest goal in AFC Champions League history as the Uzbek side picked up their first points of the 2017 edition with a 2-0 win against Al Ahli.
After suffering a 1-0 reversal to Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun on the opening day of Group A, 2016 quarter-finalists Lokomotiv shook off that defeat in record time as Kutibaev headed home Marat Bikmaev’s left-wing cross after just 18 seconds to stun Cosmin Olaroiu’s visitors.
The achievement is only bettered by Sebastian Soria’s nine-second opener for Lekhwiya against Pakhtakor in 2013.
Bikmaev went from provider to scorer to net the second, slotting past Majed Nasser