As soon as Ahmed Al Mazroui saw an Al Hilal supporters’ banner when he touched down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, he knew they would be drawn as Al Ain’s opponents in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League.
And so it transpired yesterday at around 12:00 UAE time as the Boss and the Crescent were the first two names pulled out of the hat in Malaysia.
Two of the biggest clubs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the pitting of the two teams against each other will evoke memories of their 2014 ACL semi-final clash and a 3-0 drubbing handed out to Al Ain by Hilal in front of a raucous 57,000 King Fahd International Stadium that took the tie away from them.
The two giants of Gulf football will clash at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on August 21 with the second leg in Riyadh taking place two weeks later on September 11.
Al Mazroui, vice chairman of Al Ain’s board of directors, flew to the Far East as the club’s representative at the ACL last eight draw and claimed he was not surprised to be paired with Hilal, who overcame Esteghlal Khuzestan 4-2 on aggregate in the last 16 after topping Group D.
“I certainly expected us to be drawn against Al Hilal,” said Al Mazroui.
“Personally I expected to face Hilal since the moment I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur airport, when I saw a Hilal banner.”
Al Mazroui also expressed pride at the club reaching the last eight for the third time in four seasons.
“The team wants to compete for the Champions League title and have had a hard number of games on the continent which has driven us to achieve the best results and got us here,” he added.
“We have been challengers for the continental title in the last three seasons. We have potential and a strong desire to restore the continental title to our beloved country to repeat the Asian achievement we achieved in 2003.
“I think that the chances of all the teams that qualified for the quarter-finals are equal and everyone here deserves to be so.”
The two teams have clashed four times in total in the competition, in 2014 and a year earlier, with two wins apiece.
And Hilal team manager Faisal Al Farshan hopes the two-legged tie will be befitting of the rivalry between the sides.
“We are looking forward to make a match worthy of the name of the reputation of the two clubs,” he said.
“The performance of the two teams this season have won praise and appreciation off everyone.”
Iran’s Persepolis and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli will no longer play their second leg Asian Champions League quarter-finals in Qatar, the football body said Tuesday, as a diplomatic crisis sweeps the region.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen were among those to cut ties with Qatar on the grounds that Doha supported extremist groups “that aim to destabilise the region”.
The rift has triggered the closure of air space and the expulsion of diplomats.
It also means a new venue will have to be found for the matches between the two teams, scheduled for August and September.
“Iran has chosen Oman as their neutral venue. Saudi has chosen Qatar for their home match but now with the new development, Saudi Arabia has to propose a new (neutral) venue,” the AFC’s secretary general Windsor John told reporters.
John said the new neutral venue could be identified over the next two weeks. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran play matches at home.
Persepolis spokesman Pendar Khomarlou told AFP the team was unaffected by the Gulf diplomatic bust-up, the biggest to hit the region in years.
“Saudi and Qatar have political problems. Saudi may choose Abu Dhabi. We have no problems with playing in Abu Dhabi since we have a lot of supporters living there,” he said.
He also said the four teams that could make it to the semis were Persepolis, Guangzhou Evergrande, Al Ain and Kawasaki Frontale.
Al Ain will go into the second leg of their AFC Champions League Round-of-16 clash against Esteghlal next week with plenty to do after a last-gasp penalty condemned their 10 men to an unlucky 1-0 defeat in Iran.
Striker Kaveh Rezaei kept his cool to slot home the only goal of the game deep into stoppage time after substitute and UAE international Mohamed Ahmed, playing in his first continental game of the season after returning from a serious knee injury, handled the ball.
It capped a dismal end to the game after Al Ain youngster Saeed Juma was sent off with 13 minutes left. The 18-year-old centre-back was given a straight red by referee Fu Ming following his two-footed challenge on Mohsen Karimi.
It means that The Boss, who missed out on domestic qualification to the 2018 competition after their fourth-placed finish in the Arabian Gulf League, have it all to do when they host the Iranian side next Monday.
The result, which was Al Ain’s first loss in seven matches in this round, will be hard to swallow for Zoran Mamic’s men, especially after they had kept the hosts at bay early on at the daunting Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
The stats at half-time pretty much summed up the first 45 minutes, with both sides registering just one shot on target.
Neither team were clinical in front of goal, with Caio for the Boss one of the players to be wasteful.
Omar Abdulrahman shot wide early in the second half, but Esteghlal were finally rewarded for their possession through Rezaei’s strike.