Playing in your own stadium is supposed to provide comfort, but the Hazza bin Zayed is turning into an unhappy home for Al Ain.
A 1-1 second leg draw saw the Boss beaten 3-2 on aggregate in the AFC Champions League final the last time the tournament graced the Garden City in November.
And, despite UAE international centre-back Ismail Ahmed rescuing a point in their 2017 ACL opener last night, a sucker punch from Iranian visitors Zob Ahan leaves one of the continent’s biggest heavyweights still picking themselves up off the canvas.
It will have felt familiar to the Al Ain players. They were woeful in the competition’s opening group stage a year ago, losing two games and drawing one as they eventually scraped through to the knockout stages in second place.
Croatian former coach Zlatko Dalic turned things around dramatically though, and compatriot Goran Mamic will hope his team similarly improve as the competition progresses.
In fairness, the hosts will feel they did more than enough to win last night’s game, peppering the Zob goal in the first half.
“I’m not happy with the result. My team deserve victory, especially in the first half,” said Mamic.
“We weren’t on the same level in the second half but had a few very good chances and when you see that the opponent scores from one attack in 90 minutes you cannot be happy.
“We played very good football and controlled the game, but football is about goals and we didn’t score.”
Zob coach Mojtaba Hosseini admitted his side arrived in the UAE with a plan to defend, and it very nearly paid off.
“We had good concentration and mentality,” he said.
“We tried to be good defensively, then we had a plan to go to the counterattack. We did well but one mistake led to us conceding.
“We are pleased though with this result. I think this one point will be important for us.”
It was almost comical how the hosts failed to open the scoring in a first half where the visitors were mere passengers.
Wave after wave of purple-shirted attacks poured forward but each time they were repelled, with goalkeeper Mohammadrashid Mazaheri keeping out efforts from Omar and Mohamed Abdulrahman.
Even when he was beaten, the official came to Zob’s rescue. Ibrahim Diaky, deployed as an auxiliary striker perhaps due to the tepid displays of January acquisition Nasser Al Shamrani, stooped to head in after Mazaheri had brilliantly parried Caio’s ferocious volley, but he was flagged offside.
Conspicuous by their absence in an attacking sense in the first half, the Crocodiles snapped into life 17 minutes into the second, silencing the Hazza when they dared to take the lead.
They had created precious little beforehand but took the lead through Honduras international Jerry Bengtson. Midfield schemer Ehsan Pahlavan created some space in the box and fired a low shot that was beaten out by Khalid Essa.
The ball found its way back to Pahlavan though and he then fired across goal where 52-times capped Bengtson buried high into the net.
That was the cue for Al Ain to take it up a gear.
They flowed forward incessantly but the visitors stood firm. For all the genius of Omar Abdulrahman, it was a routine set-piece that finally undid Zob.
Former Bani Yas wideman Bandar Al Ahbabi swung in a corner and Ahmed rose high to power in the equaliser.
A winner never came though, Al Shamrani just off target from distance while Mazaheri came to the rescue at the death, scrambling across his goal to excellently keep out Ahmed’s header, which had looked destined for the corner.
Last week, the Asian Football Confederation announced that 22 players and officials from Laos and Cambodia would be banned for life for involvement in match manipulation. The decision was taken by the Disciplinary Committee against the backdrop of of an investigation started in 2014.
Among the 22 individuals sanctioned, 15 are current or former players of the Laos national team and the club side Lao Toyota FC. No further details were revealed.
The AFC confirmed that the investigation was supported by the FIFA Integrity Unit and its Swiss-based partner Sportradar, a reminder of how decisive analytical data have become in the fight against match fixing.
For those who don’t know, Sportradar is a private company that operates a Fraud Detection System using mathematical algorithms to detect suspicious betting behaviour. FIFA and Sportradar announced the conclusion of an agreement on February 3, 2017.
The AFC’s decision also comes weeks after UEFA made public the grounds of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decision to ban Albanian club Skenderbeu from taking part in this season’s UEFA Champions League edition, due to their involvement in match fixing.
UEFA excluded Skenderbeu with evidence reports, supported also by the Sportradar system, indicating irregular betting patterns; the correlation of such analytical data with suspicious actions occurring on the field.
Skenderbeu appealed to CAS, challenging the legal value of the reports in lack of other conclusive evidence.
For the club, irregular patterns could not be sufficient to demonstrate any involvement in match-fixing. The utility of the UEFA fraud detection system, which is also used by the AFC, CONMEBOL and FIFA, was put to test.
CAS eventually confirmed the decision to exclude Skenderbeu, concluding that the collected data accompanied by a good qualitative analysis demonstrated at least an indirect involvement in match-fixing – sufficient to prevent the club from participating in the UEFA Champions League.
The manner in which the AFC has published this latest scandal in Asian football is without doubt a direct consequence of the positive impact of the Skenderbeu decision, which has given governing bodies a powerful weapon in their fight against this cancer in sport.
It was a miserable night for Al Jazira as the Arabian Gulf League (AGL) leaders were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Lekhwiya in their AFC Champions League opener.
Having won their last seven league matches, the Pride of Abu Dhabi would have fancied their chances of taking all three points in Doha especially against a side who had only tasted success once at home in their last six matches.
Instead, Lekhwiya were far superior with Youssef El-Arabi’s brace and a solo strike from Youssef Msakni sealing the deserved victory at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
For Jazira, they were far from their best and yesterday’s result gave an indication of how influential Leonardo will be missed after the AFC Champions League winner was withdrawn from the squad for the group stages.
It just took 11 minutes for Henk Ten Cate’s men to fall behind when Msakni took advantage of poor defending to cross home for El-Arabi.
Minutes later, Msakni then tried his luck from long range but his effort was blocked by Ali Khaseif.
Trailing 1-0, Jazira were still in the game but failed to find that cutting edge in front of goal with chances hard to come by for AGL top-scorer Ali Mabkhout.
After the restart, there was encouraging signs of improvement from Jazira with Lekhwiya goalkeeper Amine Lecomte producing an outstanding point blank save to deny Mabkhout on 70 minutes.
Khaseif made two saves in quick succession to stop Ismail Mohammed and Msakni. But it was the home fans who were celebrating 10 minutes from time when Msakni, who was a constant threat on the wing, doubled the lead.
The Moroccan beat Salim Rashid easily before unleashing the ball past Khaseif.
Jazira’s evening went bad to worse when El-Arabi got his second after the former Granada forward converted Hassan Afif’s cross in the closing stages.