Embattled coach Juan Carlos Garrido was encouraged by the belated show of “fighting spirit” from troubled Al Ain, even though a 2-0 loss at Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal guarantees a premature exit from the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Eager Green Falcons winger Hattan Bahebri ominously scored within 15 seconds on Monday evening for the big-spending hosts at King Saud University Stadium. A heavy defeat to compound the misery incurred in a – now – eight-match winless spell seemed inevitable, yet only veteran midfielder Mohammad Al Shalhoub was able to further get on the score sheet with a measured 90th-minute finish from the edge of the penalty box.
This result, with a fixture to spare, sent the hosts through as Group C winners, while eliminating the Boss from the opening phase for the first time in six years. Garrido, however, hoped the dogged display would act as encouragement to gatecrash the Arabian Gulf League’s top-three and secure their ticket for the 2020 continental tournament.
“We do not think about the outcome of any match,” said the 50-year-old. “Our focus was on the game and our goal was to get the three points.
“I was asking the players to show fighting spirit.
“The fact is that the team is going through conditions of decline in performance and has not been at its best for a while. But we are now required to think about our future fixtures and to reserve our AFC Champions League qualifying ticket for next season.”
Young winger Mohammed Khalfan impressed in spurts, but Al Ain struggled to truly threaten. This paucity of opportunity (the Boss had six attempts to Hilal’s 11) frustrated former Villarreal tactician Garrido.
He said: “The real analysis of football matches is always shortened by the final result.
“We suffered a quick goal from the opponent, but we were in the game in the second half.
“But we have not succeeded in translating chances into goals.
“When the easy chances are wasted, you will not be able to achieve any positive result. I cannot fail to congratulate Al Hilal on winning and qualifying for the knockout stages.”
Al Ain round out their ACL commitments with May 20’s dead rubber against Iran’s Esteghlal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
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.