Al Nasr coach Ivan Jovanovic paid tribute to his players after their historic AFC Champions League voyage continued with a place in the quarter-finals secured.
The Blue Wave had a far rougher ride than they would have expected following a 4-1 thrashing of Tractor Sazi in the first leg a week ago.
Their advantage was extended to 5-1 early on when Salem Saleh dispatched Jonathan Pitroipa’s fine cross to open the scoring in Tabriz.
Three Tractor goals in 26 second-half minutes, however, whipped the majority of the 67,858 crowd inside Yadegar-e Emam Stadium into a frenzy and left the Blue Wave repelling a tide of constant late attacks.
Jovanovic acknowledged his team had to work hard towards the end but felt they deserved their 5-4 aggregate victory.
“My special thanks to my players,” said Jovanovic following the game. “Perhaps Tractor Sazi attacked more during the (two) games but we were the more effective team. Tractor Sazi are a very powerful team. In football, if you don’t deserve it, you will not go through to the next round.”
Striker Farzad Hatami leveled the scores on the night just after there-start to give his side a glimmer of hope before Mohammad Iranporian’s rocket sent the home fans soaring as Tractor began to believe.
A second for Hatami meant one more would have taken the tie to extra-time, but Nasr held on to continue their fairytale run.
“I congratulate Al Nasr on this victory,” said Tractor coach Amir Ghalenoei. “We should have scored five or six goals but it didn’t happen. This is one of my bad days. We played good football but couldn’t emerge victorious.”
The pressure was on Zlatko Dalic’s men after they had been pegged back 1-1 in the first-leg a week ago despite scoring early and dominating for large spells.
Goals from Lee Myung-joo and Danillo Asprilla in Isfahan sent the UAE side through 3-1 on aggregate.
At the same stage of the competition last season, the Boss were dumped out by fellow UAE giants
Al Ahli on away goals after a 3-3 draw at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium followed a 0-0 in the opener in Dubai.
And they could face another Emirati team after the Blue Wave booked their spot in the last eight the previous night with a 5-4 aggregate win against Tractor Sazi.
Al Ain talisman Omar Abdulrahman was predictably the catalyst behind their triumph, setting up both goals last night. The UAE string-puller sold a brilliant dummy to full-back Ali Hamam in the 12th minute and swept into the penalty area before cutting back to South Korea midfielder Lee.
The 26-year-old still had much to do, opening up his body to plant a side-footed effort brilliantly into Mohammadrashid Mazaheri’s top left-hand corner.
They almost made it two before half-time when Asprilla won the ball on the edge of his own box and launched a lightening counter-attack. He fed Abdulrahman who played the ball back to him, the Colombian unleashing a rasping, dipping drive that had Mazaheri rooted to the spot but drifted agonisingly wide.
The Al Ain players gathered in a huddle on the pitch at the end of the half rather than head straight down the tunnel, perhaps as a sign of solidarity.
Their lead became iron-clad just after the hour when the much maligned Asprilla put them 2-0 ahead, skipper Abdulrahman again at the heart of it. He sent Asprilla streaking away and he kept his composure to calmly slot under Mazaheri.
That provided the Boss with a big cushion, leaving the hosts needing three goals to progress. They saw out the rest of the game without concern and will now aim to repeat their 2014 campaign when they made the final four.
Lifting the President’s Cup will allow rejuvenated Al Jazira to banish memories of their “disaster” in the top flight, according to lethal forward Ali Mabkhout.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi were hotly tipped to challenge for the Arabian Gulf League crown last summer. But the heralded return of 2010/11 winning coach Abel Braga turned into a nightmare.
They have rebounded since Henk ten Cate replaced the outdated Brazilian in December, Mabkhout’s predatory triple against double-chasing Al Ahli setting up a showdown with Al Ain in Sunday’s final.
“Of course, I’m so happy to have scored a hat-trick in the semi-final to help my team through to the final, but I hope now we can take the cup,” said the UAE international.
“Because after the disaster in the league this season, to win the cup is very important for the team.
“We all want this President’s Cup, we put all our focus on this and hopefully we’ll do it.”
Despite Jazira limping home a distant seventh in the league, Mabkhout was second top-scorer with a career-high 23 goals. Further efforts in the abortive AFC Champions League campaign and President’s Cup put him onto an outstanding 29 strikes in 31 matches this term.
The leading marksman at the 2015 Asian Cup has no intention of ending there.
He said: “For me, it’s the best season in my life. But I hope next season will be even better. I need to continue, not stop here.”