Pressure on Dalic eases as Al Ain secure passage to ACL knockouts

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Ismail Ahmed is celebrates with teammates after scoring Al Ain's second.

Al Ain’s Asian ambitions remain intact and coach Zlatko Dalic can breathe again. For now.

Passage to the AFC Champions League’s knockout stages was secured, finally, with Tuesday night’s routine 2-0 dismissal of limited visitors Nasaf.

A club which looks far beyond the confines of the UAE’s borders for validation can now consign this often-torturous Group D campaign to the past. Progression also assuages the recent pain created by the concession of their Arabian Gulf League crown.

What this means for Dalic’s future is initially unclear. This win earned by winger Danilo Asprilla’s strike and Ismail Ahmed’s clincher is not enough to guard from a rapidly-expiring contract, but elimination would surely have been fatal to limited prospects of a renewal.

The double header to come against Group B winners Zob Ahan later this month could either offer salvation or be the inevitable last act of a trophy-laden, two-year reign.

To guarantee entry into the round of 16 from an opening stage which began with schismatic successive losses to Qatar’s El Jaish, victory was required at a half-full Hazza bin Zayed Stadium to fend off Al Ahli Jeddah’s advances.

A glorious opportunity to calm early nerves was uncharacteristically wasted by 12-goal winter signing Douglas, who shot into the side-netting from close range during the first minute. Watching club legend Asamoah Gyan – back in the Garden City from Shanghai SIPG for treatment – would have backed himself to score.

Nasaf lived up to their billing as the group’s bottom-placed side during the drawn reverse meeting and they carried little threat at the start.

The host’s growing control finally gained reward just before the break. A wonderful through ball from UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman teed up Asprilla to fire through Uzbekistan goalkeeper Eldorbek Suyunov’s legs.

Equal parts elation and relief followed.

The psychology of the contest changed after the break. Nasaf’s mission improbable spurred them to push on as the Boss sat back.

Forward Bobir Abdixolikov’s curled effort which crashed against the crossbar on 76 minutes almost punished this approach, prior to Ahmed’s soothing header from another Omar Abdulrahman tee-up at the death.

Dalic and his troops live to fight another day.

Elsewhere, Pakhtakor handed UAE’s Al Jazira, who were already out of the competition, a 3-0 defeat in Group C.

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