This was Al Ain, but not as we know them. Their usual control and dynamism was cast aside at an inopportune moment, a 1-1 draw with Pakhtakor denying the chance to take firm control of Group B in the AFC Champions League.
Watched on – yet again – by sidelined prized striker Asamoah Gyan, the Boss failed to ever take a firm grip of proceedings. The angst generated by the recent Arabian Gulf Super Cup defeat to Al Ahli noted by coach Zlatko Dalic in his pre-match press conference could be felt from the nervy Hazza bin Zayed Stradium terraces.
A superb 20th-minute opener from stand-in centre forward Jires kembo Ekoko created hope that was snuffed out deep into first-half injury time by unmarked Uzbekistan danger man Igor Sergeev’s header.
The sedate second period that followed saw few chances and even more frustration.
This could either be a valuable point against the venerable Uzbekistan Professional Football League holders, or a criminally-wasted home fixture. Only the final two rounds of pool matches will tell, starting with the trip to Saudi Arabia on April 22.
The breakthrough last night was a thing of beauty. An excellent one-two between UAE team-mates Omar Abdulrahman and Rashid Essa in midfield led to the former playing Kembo Ekoko through, an uncharacteristically-sharp low finish spinning evasively into the bottom corner.
The former France Under-21 international was starting up top after Gyan’s withdrawal, still feeling the effects of a lingering abductor problem. This was the 13th no show of the season, a situation that worries Dalic.
He said: “Asamoah Gyan was not ready to play serious football. We don’t want to push him or force him.
“He told me he could not play at full power.
“I understand, but it is not easy for us playing many games without him.”
The Boss were far the brighter by the midway stage of the first half. Kembo Ekoko’s speed again got him away from the dawdling Sherlar centre-backs, the stand-in centre forward’s effort this time being well saved by visiting goalkeeper Alexander Lobanov.
This was not to last.
A small but noisy contingent of travelling Pakhtakor supporters never stopped believing despite what was unfolding in front of their eyes. The drumming from high in a desolate stand kept their troops alive, a rare foray forward deep into first-half injury time gaining reward.
Rampaging left-back Aleksandr Merzlyakov stood up Mohamed Ahmed, his perfect deep cross picking out the criminally-unmarked Sergeev.
The Uzbekistan starting striker did what was expected once usually rock-solid UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem let him out of his sights, nodding in deftly to send the teams down the tunnel at level pegging.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) April 7, 2015
This was not cruel punishment for the Boss. Essa aside, a strange torpor had taken over them. They were everything they were not during the superb 1-0 triumph in Tashkent – limp instead of lively and absentminded instead of switched on.
Few chances followed after the break, the group stages not yet advanced enough for either to risk everything.
A sweeping move saw Lee Myung-joo finish like a defensive midfielder, screwing his side-footed attempt wide to the audible frustration of the Hazza crowd. Their disappointment came again soon after when the lively Essa – drafted in for Mirosla Stoch – was hooked on 69 minutes when visibly panting.
Salem – the Boss and the UAE’s finest defender this term – was again at the opposite end. He flicked a leg at a probing Jamshid Iskanerov throughball, captain Kakhi Makharadze pushed into a tight enough angle not to trouble Khalid Essa with his close-range attempt.
Al Ain laid siege at end without any real conviction they would secure all three points. Substitute Ibrahim Diaky brought Gyan and the supporters to their feet, but his inch-wide free-kick was the only time they came close again.
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