A calamitous defensive error robbed Al Ain of a priceless victory as Zob Ahan escaped with a draw and their unbeaten AFC Champions League record intact.
Douglas’ early opener at a fervent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium reflected the Boss’ first half dominance but their failure to build on that momentum was to cost them dear.
Mohammad Abbasi’s weak header sparked panic between defender Ismail Ahmed and goalkeeper Khalid Essa, bobbling home for a potentially-vital 76th minute away goal to ensure his side will start as favourites to progress to the quarter-finals next week.
The Boss are finding their feet in this season’s ACL after a stuttering start, which saw them lose their opening two games, and they gained further confidence as a thunderous start was rewarded by a ninth minute opener.
Danilo Asprilla was instrumental, teasing Zob left-back Hashem Beikzadeh and crossing for Mohamed Abdulrahman whose shot was brilliantly blocked on the line by right-back Ali Hamam.
The rebound fell kindly for Lee Myung-joo, who could not quite believe that another superb intervention from Hamam saw the ball deflected behind Zob’s respite was brief. They failed to clear the resulting corner and Brazilian striker Douglas was deadly from six yards as he stabbed in Ismail Ahmed’s volleyed cross.
Colombian speedster Asprilla was torturing Beikzadeh and another good run should have seen the Boss take charge. He cut the ball back to Mohamed Abdulrahman, who saw his shot flicked onto the bar by a brilliant Mohammadrashid Mazaheri fingertip save.
The visitors had arrived in the Garden City on the back of a flourishing group stage showing, Yahya Golmohammadi’s side boasting the best record of all 32 teams.
They stormed into the knockout rounds with 14 points and were one of just two teams – alongside
Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent – to not lose a game.
The Crocodiles were much improved in the second half as they snapped into life, though their equaliser arrived in hugely fortuitous circumstances.
A hopeful ball was pumped into the box and Abbasi’s tame header confused Ahmed and Essa, a nick off the UAE centre-back leaving his club and international colleague clutching at thin air and the visitors grasping a lifeline.
Douglas directed a late header over as the game petered out, with Al Ain left to wonder exactly how they hadn’t won.
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The Boss were pushed to the limit in their bid to reach the round of 16, rebounding from a pair of opening losses to Qatar’s El Jaish to finish second in Group D.
A two-legged meeting kicks-off at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium this evening, with the Croatian supremo expecting another examination of his 2014 semi-finalists.
He said: “If my team plays our style and what we prepare, I am not afraid. We had most difficult situation before we played Al Ahli Jeddah, following two losses against El Jaish.
“Our players showed character and a strong mentality, coming back to their game in the AFC Champions League. We have next game in Iran, but we want to win and pass into the best eight teams in Asia.
“We must not make any mistakes, having full concentration for 90 minutes.
“It will be a very tough game. Our opponent has a lot of running and are very strong – we have to be patient, patient, patient.”
There is still plenty for Al Ain to play for in the final fortnight of the campaign as they bid to get over the loss of their Arabian Gulf League crown. A third-successive entry into the quarter-finals of the continent’s premier club competition can be achieved in the next seven days, while sandwiched in between is Saturday’s battle with Bani Yas for a spot in the President’s Cup final.
Immediate opponents Zob Ahan – nicknamed the Crocodiles – could only limp home sixth in the 2015/16 Persian Gulf Pro League. But they raced to top spot in Group B of the ACL, winning their last three matches to an aggregate score of 11-2.
Coach Yahya Golmohammadi – a 74-times-capped centre-back for Iran – highlighted UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman as the major threat to the beaten 2010 finalists.
He said: “We must fight against Al Ain, who are one of the best teams in Asia. We went through hardship to get here and we will endure.
“Al Ain have very dangerous players, like Omar Abdulrahman. He only needs one second to decide the game and we must watch him.”
The teams meet again next Wednesday in Isfahan’s 15,000-capacity Foolad Shahr Stadium.
A predatory brace from early substitute Salem Saleh, sandwiched by rockets from full-backs Ahmed Al Yassi and Mahmoud Khamis, secured a fully-merited 4-1 triumph against spiky Tractor Sazi. Not even a volleyed away goal from Brazilian midfielder Augusto could take the sheen off an incredible round-of-16 opener for Ivan Jovanovic’s men.
The return clash next Tuesday will be bitterly contested, there is no doubt about that. The Red Wolves came to Dubai looking for a fight rather than a football match, with more of the same expected in Iran.
But a huge opportunity has been earned to extend this debut foray – at the third time of asking – into the quarter-finals. Neighbours Al Ahli and their march to the 2015 showpiece can attest to how far first steps can take you in Asia’s premier club competition.
“We won today 4-1, but we have to play one more game in Tabriz and it’ll be very difficult match,” said Jovanovic, who remarkably led Cypriot minnows APOEL to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2011/12. “And in order to qualify we need to play a better game than we did today.
“But in the end I want to say a big congratulations and bravo to my players, they gave everything and they write in golden letters a big new history for this club.”
Incendiary opposite number Amir Ghalenoei saw it differently. To say the least.
He said: “I trust in my team and their strengths and I’m sure we’re going to compensate in Tabriz with the help of our fans. Of course, only if they’re coming to play football, not in mistaking the pitch every time for a hospital.
“I believe the Arab countries pay so much play for football, if they could train more they should have improved their football more. Given all these facts, I say congratulations to the Nasr coach.
“I believe he would not like the type of football they play, because he comes from modern football countries. But it is in their blood; they do like this, all the Arab countries.”
A turning point at Al Maktoum Stadium came in just the 11th minute, an innocuous ankle knock for Brazil striker Nilmar springing Salem Saleh from the bench.
The opener came soon after the 25-year-old’s introduction, Al Yassi sweeping in after a devilish Khamis delivery was not cleared.