Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic chose to praise the character of his ailing side despite a last-gasp implosion which threatened their progression to the President’s Cup final.
The dethroned Arabian Gulf League champions were 2-0 ahead as last night’s scrappy semi-final against Bani Yas headed towards the final whistle. A pair of goals from forward Ishak Belfodil and centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman then produced a stunning end to the 90 minutes, with South Korea international Lee Myung-joo saving the 2014 winners’ blushes with a composed finish during extra time.
“We were very aggressive and very compact for 90 minutes,” said 49-year-old Dalic, who will battle Al Jazira at Zayed Sports City next Sunday for the trophy. “But in two minutes we gave two goals away when everybody said it was over – but it is not until the last minute.
“My team showed a lot of character. All season, it has been a tough time for us.
“To finish the game was a tough job for us, but Inshallah it will be okay and we deserved to win.”
This shock collapse followed a disappointing 1-1 draw with Zob Ahan during their round-of-16 opener in the AFC Champions League, with the tricky decider coming in Iran on Wednesday.
Opposite number Dr Abdullah Miser refused to wallow in misery about a match which, fleetingly, promised so much.
He said: “Don’t tell me hard luck, because this is football. My players played their heart out and were very good all throughout the match.”
The 54-year-old has revived a club going nowhere under predecessor Luis Garcia since his arrival from the UAE Under-23s in March. This was just a third loss in seven matches, and he hoped to be given a longer window to prove his worth next term.
He said: “I didn’t get lot of time with this club, but if we had more time I can get good results.”
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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.