Al Ain’s 2018 AFC Champions League-campaign is yet to receive ignition after a rollercoaster 2-2 draw with their former coach Winfried Schafer’s Esteghlal.
The Persian Gulf Pro League-giants raced into the lead on 52 minutes when ex-Juventus and Internazionale forward Mame Thiam converted winger Farshid Esmaeili’s centre. Sweden centre forward Marcus Berg soon responded with a fine volley, before a double save by Hossein Hosseini denied him from the penalty spot.
Schafer’s troops raced up the other end and the same duo combined to make it 2-1. A ruinous Group D-defeat seemed likely, only for substitute Ahmed Khalil to calmly convert a penalty he contentiously won close to the 90-minute mark and make it three stalemates from three games.
Domestic joy, Asian pain
Al Ain should have charged into this match in the wake of a 6-2 dismantling of Al Wahda which has put them on course for Arabian Gulf League-glory.
Yet a change of competition led to a change of approach. An uncharacteristic reticence defined them.
An average of 10 points has been needed to claim second in their groups since 2013’s last failure. They now must be almost perfect, beginning with next Tuesday’s return.
Mamic’s new main man
Coach Zoran Mamic was again required to be tactically nimble.
The ex-Croatia international surprisingly loaded Al Ain with attackers for the preceding 2-2 draw with Qatar’s Al Rayyan. This time, his decision to take off recovering UAE centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman and unleash emerging Egypt star Hussein El Shahat from his right-back berth spoke volumes.
The Boss no longer work around 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman. Little surprise after a staccato season.
El Shahat then set up Berg and won the first penalty. He is the Boss’ new centrepiece.
UAE misery continues
Judging purely on this year’s nascent ACL, you’d never know the UAE’s top flight has been ranked Asia’s best by the AFC since 2014.
From 12 group-stage matches, their entrants have won just one – Al Jazira’s opening triumph against Qatar’s Al Gharafa in Group A.
Al Wasl and Al Wahda are pointless, Jazira and Al Ain are struggling to fly the flag. They must step it up.
Zob Ahan 2-0 Al Wahda
A double from Zob Ahan forward Morteza Tabrizi ensured Al Wahda’s miserable 2018 AFC Champions League-campaign continued with a third-successive loss.
The Clarets conceded goals in both halves to the 2010 runners-up to remain bottom of Group B. Tabrizi headed the Persian Gulf Pro League-outfit ahead on 34 minutes after a lively start at Foolad Shahr Stadium.
The hosts then wrapped up the points in the 72nd minute when a combination of poor defending and flimsy goalkeeping allowed Tabrizi to get his third goal of 2018.
Al Jazira spurned a golden chance to boost hopes of making the AFC Champions League’s knockout stages for the first time in four years with their dreadful goalless draw against struggling Iranians Tractor Sazi.
The understrength hosts at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had the poor finishing of Ehsan Pahlavan to thank, as opponents who sit bottom of Group A dominated.
Asian dreams slipping away
The constant refrain from Jazira manager Henk ten Cate is how important progress on the continent is during this trying season.
In aid of their successful – and shock – pursuit of last term’s Arabian Gulf League-title, ACL ambitions were sacrificed.
Yet at the halfway stage, advancement is anything but assured. All momentum from their opening success against Wesley Sneijder’s Al Gharafa – a first win in 15 games in the competition – has evaporated with a 2-1 loss at Al Ahli Jeddah and this awful display on Monday night.
Victory is now essential next Tuesday in Tabriz as they desperately hang onto second place.
Mabkhout lets Jazira down
When suspensions, injuries and a season of strife all bite, you need your key men to stand tall.
2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout badly let himself – and his club – down when a booking for dissent post the final whistle ruled him out of the next game.
“He is a role model for young players,” said Ten Cate. “Of course, he is disappointed about what happened after the final whistle.”
With fellow striker Ahmed Al Attas also now banned, a significant game awaits for inconsistent Brazilian Romarinho.
Way off the Mbark
You cannot underestimate the influence of missing Morocco centre midfielder Mbark Boussoufa on the Pride of Abu Dhabi after this turgid encounter.
Suspension ensured the 33-year-old could not be fielded against the Red Wolves. In his absence, panic was induced.
UAE prospect Mohamed Jamal wilted without his experienced partner. His woeful pass to attacker Ahmed Al Attas that ruined a promising counter past the 90-minute mark summed up his loose display.
Persepolis 2-0 Al Wasl
Al Wasl are almost eliminated from the AFC Champions League after a third loss in a row was recorded, this time going down 2-0 at Persian Gulf Pro League holders Persepolis.
A weakened squad was sent to Tehran for this Group B fixture. They performed admirably against strong opponents, who struck both goals just before the interval.
Attacking midfielder Farshad Ahmadzadeh volleyed in a 36th-minute opener. This was soon added to by Red Army striker Ali Alipour’s penalty in front of 33,000 fans.
Asian competition is now key for the Pride of Abu Dhabi after a miserable defence of their Arabian Gulf League-crown. Wesley Sneijder’s Al Gharafa were beaten 3-2 in last month’s enlivening Group A-opener to end a 15-match winless spell on the continent, before a profligate display at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah led to a 2-1 defeat.
A double header against pointless and goalless Iranians Tractor Sazi begins on Monday night at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Ten Cate urged his second-placed troops to leave nothing on the table.
“Very important for both teams,” said the ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant about the clash.
“For us, an important match to keep participating for top spot and for them to stay in the tournament. It will be very tight. I’ve seen them twice, they’re a good team and I think they were unlucky.
“The game in Qatar [versus Gharafa] was amazing as they were better than their opponent and lost 3-0. It was like us, we were the best team there [at Al Ahli] and lost 2-1.”
Jazira’s cause has not been helped by the suspension of influential Morocco midfielder Mbark Boussoufa. They also lost both group games to Tractor in 2016 by a combined score of 5-0.
📸📸— نادي الجزيرة (@AlJazira_uae) March 3, 2018
فخر أبوظبي يواصل تحضيراته لمواجهة تراكتور سازي في #دوري_أبطال_آسيا
حيث يخوض مهمته الوطنية الثالثة في إستاد محمد بن زايد بأبوظبي الاثنين #مع_الفخر_لأجل_الوطن
Training for @TheAFCCL match this Monday in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium pic.twitter.com/9RAp3HoXit
The Red Wolves travel to Abu Dhabi on the back of their own domestic travails. They currently sit 10th in the Persian Gulf Pro League – a descent from 2017/18’s third.
“It will not be the end [if we don’t win], but it will be really difficult to qualify for the next round,” said coach Ertugrul Saglam, an ex-Turkey international striker.
“We don’t have to win this match, but we have to take four points from these next two games.”
Persepolis v Al Wasl
Persepolis boss Branko Ivankovic has warned pointless Al Wasl they plan to exorcise their pain from derby defeat when the sides meet in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
The Persian Gulf Pro League holders went down 1-0 on Thursday against Esteghlal. They now face a weakened Wasl team in Group C, for whom stars such as Fabio De Lima haven’t travelled.
“It’s natural that failure in a derby is never good,” said ex-Al Wahda boss Ivankovic. “But this game is more important than the derby.”