Veteran skipper Mohammad Al Shalhoub was the hero with a composed 65th minute winner earning Al Hilal victory against Al Ain on opening night in the AFC Champions League.
Mekka-born midfielder Al Shalhoub calmly side-footed Mohamed Al Buraik’s cross into the top corner of Khalid Essa’s net in the second half as Zoran Mamic made a winning return to the Garden City, having left Al Ain only in January.
It was a goal that broke the Boss’ resistance, having been a stalemate up until that point. The Crescent could have won by a much bigger margin in the end as they had several chances to wrap up the points as the hosts pushed for a winner, but they were unable to score a second.
Veteran Al Ain centre-back Ismail Ahmed was shown a straight red card minutes from the end for a crude hack on a visiting attacker just outside the box.
The two sides met twice in last year’s group stage, sharing the points in the first leg in Saudi Arabia, while Al Ain emerged 2-1 winners in the UAE.
Hilal started strongly as Group C opened, Essa saving from Brazilian Carlos Eduardo.
Japan international Tsukasa Shiotani’s free-kick was then narrowly off target but it was the Saudis dominating possession, Bafetimbi Gomis sending a header off target.
Eduardo thought he had found the opener just after the break but his thunderous strike from Sebastian Giovinco’s cushioned header cannoned off the upright.
It was left to veteran Al Shalhoub to finally break the deadlock, the 38-year-old 118-times capped Saudi international expertly finishing beyond Essa.
Elsewhere in west Asia, former Juventus centre-back Mehdi Benatia marked his bow in the Asian version of the Champions League with a debut goal as Al Duhail opened their campaign with a 3-0 home win over Iran’s Esteghlal.
Benatia headed home Murad Naji’s cross to open the scoring for Rui Faria’s side in the 56th minute.
Faria – former Manchester United assistant under Jose Mourinho – was celebrating victory thanks to further goals from top scorer Youssef El Arabi, who doubled the Qatari side’s lead in the 74th minute, and substitute Ali Afif.
Persepolis came back from a goal down to salvage a 1-1 draw with Pakhtakor, Marat Bikmaev putting the visitors ahead with Mario Budimir drilling them level in the 25th minute.
A key win in the ACL race:3 points in the bag.— Bafétimbi Gomis (@BafGomis) 5 March 2019
Good performance of the team in Al Ain and “the spell is broken” 🙏🏿
Congratulations to the man of the match @mbsh_10 for the new born. Wishing him a long life of happiness Inchallah #legend pic.twitter.com/9f3IkRMHfJ
Al Ahli Jeddah eased to a 2-0 home win over visiting Al Sadd, two goals either side of the break from Syria star Omar Al Somah – one a penalty – enough for the three points.
In the eastern side of the competition, former Italy international Graziano Pelle marked his ACL debut with a brace as Shandong Luneng – for whom Marouane Fellaini made his continental bow – came from behind to draw 2-2 with tournament debutants Gyeongnam FC.
Brazilian striker Cesinha inspired Daegu FC, scoring a spectacular equaliser and having a hand in two more as the South Korean side came from behind in their first ever ACL group stage match to stun Melbourne Victory 3-1 at Aami Park.
Reigning Asian champions Kashima Antlers prevailed 2-1 against a spirited Johor Darul Tazim of Malaysia, who were also making their debut at this level.
The home side’s goals came either side of half-time from Taiki Hirata and Serginho, who atoned for a first-half penalty miss.
Anderson Talisca and Paulinho goals, meanwhile, gave Guangzhou Evergrande a 2-0 victory over Group F rivals Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
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