The writing was on the wall after just 15 seconds as crafty Brazilian Carlos Eduardo’s slaloming run ended in Hattan Bahebri smashing the hosts in front at King Saud University Stadium.
Rather than surrender and wave the white flag though, the team in white shirts fought valiantly. And it was only through Mohammad Al Shalhoub’s late counter-attack goal that Hilal added gloss to a 2-0 scoreline.
Here we take a closer look at the performance of Mohammed Khalfan.
In an opening that was indicative of how rapidly Al Ain’s season has unravelled, they were behind after just 15 seconds. Eduardo sliced through white shirts at will and even when he was brought down, Bahebri had the speed of thought to keep the move going, turning the last man and rifling beyond Khalid Essa.
Thereafter though it was a spirited performance from the visitors. True, Bafetimbi Gomis shanked a shot off the bar and Eduardo always looked a threat, but it was a dogged response from a side playing in a difficult environment.
They dug in and even made a real fist of things in the second half. Barring a lack of quality they created enough openings to have taken a point.
GOT RIGHT – COOL HEAD
Amid a testing period of fixtures and after being carved open in the opening seconds, Al Ain could easily have capitulated. They needed their experienced players to come to the fore.
And even though their veteran midfield trio got to grips with Hilal’s potent attackers, having allowed goalscorer Eduardo to slice through them so easily, so early, young starlet Khalfan really rose to the occasion.
Tongo Doumbia, Amer Abdulrahman and Ahmed Barman all played their part in a stoic resistance but Khalfan showed maturity beyond his 20 years. He was confident on the ball and made intelligent runs in order to open up space for Abdulrahman and Barman to exploit, and with the ball at his feet he provided a threat to the hosts.
An incisive run into the heart of the Hilal defence could even have earned his side a penalty, while he shanked a late shot into the grateful grasp of Abdullah Al Maiouf.
GOT WRONG – YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE
Whereas Al Ain will be thankful for his relentless energy and tenacity during tough times, as with any emerging talent, it takes time for them to mature and learn all the facets of the game.
As Hilal’s roaring start stuttered and the visitors put up some resistance, Pericles Chamusca’s charges seemed to deploy spoiling tactics to take the sting out of the game. For all their skills and trickery, widemen Salem Al Dawsari and Bahebri displayed the more tiresome side of the game by flopping to the floor under minimal contact.
In one such instance, goalscorer Bahebri lost out in a tackle to Khalfan. While the youngster stood his ground, he caught the Saudi Arabia international with a stray hand – it was all he needed to tumble theatrically to the floor. A more seasoned player may well have not given him an excuse.
In what’s been a poor campaign for his club, Khalfan has showed a calmness and maturity beyond his youthful years. He was energetic, combative and made intelligent runs throughout the contest and didn’t go hiding or shirking his defensive responsibilities.
He was fearless and flowed forward with attacking intent. It’s been a troublesome period for the Boss and there are testing times ahead. But the lively Khalfan has been a shining light.
Henk ten Cate’s fine work at Al Wahda could gain tangible reward on Tuesday night when his troops aim to end a 12-year absence from the AFC Champions League’s knockout stages.
Avoid defeat against Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent at Al Nahyan Stadium and progression from Group B will have been earned, with a game to spare. Some turnaround after the same side handed out a 2-0 humbling in March’s opener.
Lokomotiv, however, must prevail if they are to retain slender hopes of advancing from third place. Here are the talking points:
REVENGE AND HISTORY
The Champions League has provided a plethora of chastening experiences for the Clarets.
Since a 3-1 aggregate loss to Iran’s Sepahan in 2007’s semi-finals, five group-stage exits and 2015’s epic play-off defeat to Qatar’s Al Sadd have been incurred. In the previous two editions, they finished a distant and dispiriting bottom of their section.
Enter Ten Cate. The Al Jazira icon answered December’s emergency call from across Abu Dhabi.
Under him, a 4-1 thrashing of Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad ended their shameful run of seven losses in eight ACL matches. The memorable double-header against Qatar’s Al Rayyan – the latest a 4-3 win that contained a super hat-trick for Brazilian forward Leonardo – then added a vital six points.
Derail Lokomotiv this midweek and a cherished round-of-16 berth is assured.
A WORD FOR LEONARDO
Arabian Gulf League clubs are rarely this adept in the transfer market.
Last August’s free transfer pick-up of Leonardo has become the bargain of the decade.
Curiously unwanted after a solid season at Al Ahli Jeddah, the 27-year-old burst into life following Ten Cate’s hire.
Against a firm Lokomotiv, his guile and craft will be essential.
Lokomotiv sit an unfamiliar second in the infant Uzbekistan Super League, but do not discount them.
The clubs also met in 2018’s group stage. Lokomotiv prevailed with an aggregate 9-1 scoreline.
Suspension for 56-cap veteran centre-back Islom Tukhtakhodjaev, however, acts as a dampener.
Complications abound when Saudi Professional League behemoth Al Hilal welcome UAE equivalents Al Ain to Riyadh in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Uncomfortable ends to this term are ongoing, domestically, for clubs set to relinquish their top-flight crowns. The similarities, however, do not extend to continental competition.
Monday’s hosts at King Saud University Stadium are one victory away from escaping an exacting Group C, with a game to spare. In contrast, the winless – and severely depleted – Boss sit bottom and are already virtually eliminated.
CHAMUSCA’S FREE HIT
A familiar face has not survived.
Croatian supremo Zoran Mamic departed the Garden City in late January for Hilal and oversaw March’s 1-0 win at his former employers. But humiliation on a historic scale to Al Taawoun in last month’s King’s Cup semi-finals necessitated an early dismissal.
Last Monday witnessed temporary replacement Pericles Chamusca lose his debut, 2-0 against the same opponent, and cede control of the SPL’s title race to loathed neighbours Al Nassr.
How the Brazilian will welcome Monday’s relative free-hit…
BOSS WILL FEEL BLUE
Al Ain are a car crash that keeps on skidding.
The highs of December’s runners-up spot at the Club World Cup now seem an illusion. Mamic’s successor, Juan Carlos Garrido, is enduring a seven-match winless run.
A heavy loss to guarantee group-stage elimination for the first time since 2013 seems inevitable. Even the return of disciplinary outcast Caio – a Brazilian forward seemingly bound for Benfica – offers little realistic hope.
OTAYF TO EASE BACK IN
The time has surely come to thrust Saudi Arabia artisan Abdullah Otayf back into the XI after injury.
The 26-year-old played both, dispiriting, second halves against Taawoun off the substitutes’ bench.
Al Ain, now, are an ideal opponent for him.
There is strength to test himself against in likely opposite numbers Ahmed Barman, Tongo Doumbia and Amer Abdulrahman. But not too much to risk confidence.
He’ll be a treasured asset for the knockouts, if handled correctly.