Al Jazira’s season of chaos could yet deliver a historic finish.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi gained control of their rollercoaster first AFC Champions League knockout tie since 2014 thanks to youngster Khalifa Al Hammadi’s rousing headed winner deep, deep into second-half injury time against imposing Persian Gulf Pro League holders Persepolis.
The home bench erupted and Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa slipped into the arms of coach Henk ten Cate in an explosion of emotion.
What a moment for the 19-year-old defender to break his career duck.
This was an incredible show of character from the hosts at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
They first rebounded from one-cap Iran centre forward Ali Alipour’s deft headed opener just before the break.
Defiance was then required after the actions of Japanese referee Hiroyuki Kimura and his fellow officials appeared to wipe out a vital advantage.
UAE striker Ali Mabkhout – who else? – had provided the second-half catalyst.
With Jazira buoyant after recovering to take a 2-1 lead through the aforementioned UAE striker and Romarinho’s superb efforts, a controversial penalty call for handball with 10 minutes left from prone UAE prospect Mohammed Al Attas caused ructions.
Salt was thrown on open wounds when Ali Khaseif’s athletic spot-kick save from Godwin Mensha was ruled out for encroachment by the assistant referee. The aim of the substitute – who replaced Alipour – would not falter on a second occasion.
But past the five allocated minutes, Boussoufa swung in an unnerving set-piece from out wide to break the 2018’s edition meanest defence for a third time. Belief now abounds.
The small matter of escaping the lion’s den provided by the near 80,000-capacity Azadi Stadium awaits on Monday. Few leave Asia’s fiercest arena as victors, yet alone ones who’ve conceded two away goals.
But this patchwork Jazira matched European royalty Real Madrid for 81 minutes in December’s Club World Cup on home soil. They can exceed the fragmented sum of their parts.
Do so again and a landmark berth in the quarter-finals will see this group earn a special spot in the capital outfit’s annals.
A tense round-of-16, first leg of few chances appeared set for a damaging 1-0 reversal after 19-goal PGPL top scorer Alipour decisively nodded in a late first-half cross from Iran left winger Vahid Amiri.
Heads have gone down with frequency this term at the deposed Arabian Gulf League champions. No wonder when institutional tumult has followed at every turn.
But not this time.
How could they after Ten Cate’s impassioned “all or nothing” pre-match proclamation?
Shortly after the interval, Mabkhout skipped past a pair of Persepolis challenges and unflinchingly found the bottom corner to bring hope. This also extended the most-productive continental campaign of his celebrated career to five goals in six run-outs.
Even better followed.
A cute pass from Mabkhout was latched onto by onrushing Brazilian forward Romarinho. He calmly slotted past giant Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
A sting in the tail came when Oman centre-back Mohammed Al Musalami’s loose clearance struck the unaware Mohamed Al Attas’ arm. Mensha did the rest.
Yet, you cannot discount this Jazira. Just ask Al Hammadi.
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