Al Ahli & Al Ain play out Champions League first-leg goalless draw

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Action from the game between Al Ahli and Al Ain at Rashid Stadium.

All square and all to play for, the fate of which club will fly the UAE flag in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals hangs in the balance after a goalless first leg.

Arabian Gulf League winners Al Ain finished more than 20 points ahead of deposed champions Al Ahli. But little ever separates them in direct competition, this being the case again during a tight and disciplined round-of-16 first leg at Rashid Stadium.

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Ismail Al Hammadi rattled the crossbar for the hosts while isolated lone front man Asamoah Gyan twice fluffed his lines at the opposite end. Whether Al Ain will cherish a clean sheet or bemoan the lack of an away goal will not be known until they meet again next Wednesday at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

The Red Knights were fired up by an historic-first knockout stage date rather than intimidated by the occasion. A most-vibrant start of an often-stodgy campaign saw Everton Ribeiro light up proceedings, yet clear openings worked beautifully for UAE midfielder Habib Fardan and Majed Hassan went begging in the opening 15 minutes.

The former ballooned over from the edge of the box before the on-rushing Hassan drew an incredible low save from goalkeeper Khalid Essa.

Ahli were keen to take the game to their opponents, freed of the stifling desire to niggle and bite which stained the drawn Arabian Gulf League meeting in Dubai and Ahli’s slender Arabian Gulf Super Cup triumph.

Playmaker Ribeiro was magic, exhibiting why he will be donning the Brazil jersey in this summer’s Copa America.

Exuberant flicks repeatedly brought him space in the congested middle. If only striker Ahmed Khalil could be on the same wavelength more often – his crucial brace in the 3-2 Group D victory against Tractor Sazi which got them here looked a joyous aberration to the frustrating norm.

But Al Ain’s nous is legendary and a by-product of being the UAE’s most-successful club. The lessons learned from last year’s run to the semi-finals saw them dig in and look to spring on the counter-attack.

This ‘rope-a-dope’ approach – perfect for the opening, away match of a two-legged contest – should have seen reward. Injury-plagued star striker Gyan twice shot meekly at Ahmed Dida when played in, misfiring days after smashing in four against Dibba Al Fujairah in the President’s Cup.

As ever with this most-quarrelsome of fixtures, the temperature is always close to boiling point. Red Knights substitute Oussama Assaidi turned the heat up after the interval, sharing yellows with Omar Abdulrahman after the UAE superstar reacted to his petty foul.

Ahli’s Kwon Kyung-won and Boss replacement Rashid Essa then shared a similarly juvenile moment on the verge of injury time.

This incident stood alone in a sterile second half, the Boss taking the sting out with aplomb. Yet they still had the woodwork to thank for their clean sheet on 75 minutes, Al Hammadi cutting inside to hit it when a crunching tackle from skipper-turned-substitute Luis Jimenez inside the penalty box fell to him.

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