Zlatko Dalic was denied a winning start to life as Al Ain coach as a second-half Mukhtar Fallatah brace handed Al Ittihad a 2-1 victory at the King Abdul Aziz Stadium.
The Saudi Arabian striker struck twice in seven minutes to hand his side the victory after they had fallen behind in the Group C encounter to Asamoah Gyan’s 38th-minute header.
Fallatah could, and probably should, have had a hat-trick but his penalty on the stroke of half-time was excellently saved by Al Ain goalkeeper Khalid Essa.
Dalic, who only succeeded Quique Sanchez Flores on Saturday, threw on returning playmaker Omar Abdulrahman shortly after Ittihad’s second goal but the UAE star was perhaps unsurprisingly unable to make a telling contribution following nearly seven weeks out.
This was not the start to life in the Boss dugout that Dalic had hoped for but for long periods it looked as if his decision to take over from Sanchez Flores would be vindicated.
Al Ain started the brighter of the two sides, and although Essa had to produce a stunning save with his right foot to deny the impressive Fahad Al Muwallad, they took a deserved lead seven minutes from half-time as Gyan evaded his marker to head Mirel Radoi’s corner past Abdulaziz Takroni.
Following a disappointing 2013 AFC Champions League campaign that saw him net just once, that was the Ghanaian’s second goal in two games this campaign.
However the Boss were made to sweat to preserve their lead at the break as referee Kim Jong-Hyeok pointed to the spot as Fallatah tumbled under minimal contact from Ismail Ahmed.
The striker dusted himself off to take the kick but was denied by a full-length dive to his left from Essa.
Al Ain continued to dominate after half-time and should have doubled their lead had Gyan not sliced wide first-time after some excellent play from Yassine El Ghanassy and Alex Brosque.
Hamad Al Montashari then denied the former Sunderland striker a tap-in before the hosts began to take charge. Al Muwallad carried much of their threat but it was Fallatah who got the reward as he tapped home from close range.
Substitute Faouzi Abdelghani spurned an excellent opportunity to put Ittihad in front but just one minute later Fallatah did exactly that, heading home a whipped cross from Abdulfattah Asiri.
Omar Abdulrahman then entered the fray for his first appearance since January 24 and his delivery from a set-piece in the final minute of injury time almost provided an equaliser but Ismail Ahmed headed wide.
Al Ahli managed to salvage a point from their AFC Champions League Group D clash with Al Sadd, by holding the Qatari side to a 1-1 draw at the Rashid Stadium in Dubai on Wednesday night.
In a clash that saw Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu face a team he coached five years ago, the Dubai side were unable to avenge their heavy 5-0 defeat to Al Sadd in the same competition in 2010.
A sublime first half effort from Al Sadd’s Nadir Belhadj was canceled by Ahli’s Grafite after the break, which leaves the Red Knights in third place in their group with two points from their first two games in their Asian campaign. Al Sadd top the group with four points.
The first 20 minutes were an even affair with Ahli’s Ciel first threatening the Sadd goal with a close range header that sailed wide in the third minute.
Rodrigo Tabata, Al Sadd’s new Brazilian signing, fired a dangerous free kick 10 minutes later, but it barely missed Raul’s head.
Ahli captain Grafite tried to respond with his own header, latching onto an inch-perfect flick from Ciel but he was centimetres offside.
Hassan Al Haydos tried to put the visitors in front with a long range missile in the 18th minute but ‘keeper Saif Youssef did well to keep it at bay.
But it sparked a series of attacks from Al Sadd, who broke through in the 24th minute. What started off as a wasted chance from Abdelkarim Hassan, who danced around the penalty area to no avail, ended with a sensational left-footed strike from Belhadj, who was fed the ball by Tabata and did not hesitate to shoot from 30 yards out, his ball sailing past Youssef, finding the bottom right corner of the net.
Grafite tried to retaliate four minutes later, sending a deft cross into the box but his effort was cleared while Ciel squandered the hosts’ biggest chance when he fired over the bar after Luis Jimenez dribbled around four defenders to feed him a perfect ball.
The Red Knights thought they got the equaliser five minutes from the break when Ciel headed a Hugo Viana curler but Chinese referee Tan Hai disallowed the goal, ruling a foul against the Brazilian.
Raul almost doubled the lead for the Qatari side when he latched onto a Tabata low drive down the right but he struck wide.
Right after the restart, Ciel found himself one on one with Al Sheeb but he stumbled on the ball and was brought to the ground by the ‘keeper.
Just past the hour mark, Belhadj sprinted down the right before feeding Raul in the box but the Spanish legend was beaten by the Ahli defence.
His attempted volley six minutes later was also off target. It was Grafite who sent the Rashid Stadium crowd wild when he calmly nodded a Ismail Al Hammadi’s cross past Al Sheeb to equalise.
Three minutes from the whistle, Youssef had to block a tricky corner kick from Tabata. Sadd’s Abdelkarim Hassan fired a bullet from outside the box but a heroic Youssef put his hand at just the right time to send it over the bar.
The other Group D game saw Iran’s Sepahan edge past Saudi’s Al Hilal 3-2 in a gripping encounter.
For the second time in two weeks, Cosmin Olaroiu will be up against a familiar foe and has the odd task of avenging a defeat he himself inflicted.
The Romanian goes up against his former team Al Sadd in the AFC Champions League today at the Rashid Stadium looking to put Al Ahli in prime position to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time in the club’s history.
The Qatari side and the UAE league leaders have faced each other before in the competition, with Al Sadd inflicting a 5-0 humbling four years ago when Olaroiu was in charge of the Doha club.
Olaroiu also went up against a former club last week in his team’s 2-2 draw with Saudi side Al Hilal.
The Romanian admitted that his fondness for his old charges means a win would be slightly tainted.
“Unfortunately for me, it is the same situation,” said the Romanian. “Again I am against my ex-team. It’s a pleasure to see them and meet them again. It won’t be nice playing against them.
“They have power, they have a very high technical standard. It will be very difficult for us and them too.”
Olaroiu admitted that the AFC Champions League isn’t his main priority going into the game, with the Arabia Gulf League (AGL) taking precedence over everything else and the team that runs out at the Rashid Stadium will be a weakened one.
“The result is important, but we are involved in a lot of competitions which is difficult and we have some good results. But the Champions League isn’t our main priority.
“The first competition for us is the league, whatever we do. We have to change some players because it will be hard to play every game at full strength. We don’t have a huge number of players, but the players are very good and do their job.”
Al Sadd come into the game in good form having won on match day one 3-1 against Iranian side Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan.
Their coach Hussein Amotta admitted his side would be happy to leave Dubai with just a point but will play aggressively nonetheless