DUBAI // Hosting an Asian Champions League match for the first time in their history, the Al Maktoum Stadium seemed dressed for the occasion last night. The security men, suited in black, were all over the place. A few areas of the stadium had received a fresh coat of paint as well, just to make the blue on the walls and stairs a bit more prominent.
Unfortunately, there were a lot fewer fans than the occasion deserved. The 4,730 did not fill even one-third of the ground. When Al Nasr took on Sepahan in Iran two weeks ago, thousands had turned up to support the home team.
Walter Zenga was certainly not expecting those kind of numbers for the match against Lekhwiya.
"You play one good game, watched by 10,000," he said earlier in the week, referring to the Sepahan game. "But when you come to Dubai, you are playing in front of 200 people.
"This is sad and I have to work with the players on the mental side to help them play at the same level, whether in Sepahan or Dubai."
To the credit of Nasr's players, they did make a spirited start despite the lack of support. The only UAE team not earn at least a point in the opening round following the 1-0 defeat at Sepahan, Zenga's men were determined to get three last night.
The determination paid off as they beat the Qataris 2-1, with Amara Diane scoring twice, the second in the final minute of injury time to seal the three points.
It was a deserved win, but Nasr were guilty of spurning too many chances and their prodigality could have cost them.
The chances came early. In the third minute, Luca Toni chested down a ball for Humaid Abdulla, but the excited midfielder blasted the ball wide.
Toni then miscued a header in the 16th minute, but his biggest faux pas of the night came nine minutes later when he sprinted into the box with only the Lekhwiya goalkeeper to beat. To the horror of the Nasr fans, the Italian striker shot straight at the keeper.
Two minutes later, Mark Bresciano came agonisingly close to bulging the net with a fierce free kick. Nasr's attacking endeavour, however, was eventually rewarded in the 36th minute and Toni earned a bit of redemption.
The 2006 World Cup winner, receiving the ball inside the box, teed the ball up beautifully for Diane. The Ivorian's first attempt was blasted straight at the keeper, but he made sure of the rebound to put Zenga's men ahead.
Nasr's lead, however, lasted only five minutes as Beli Dagano left Abdullah Moosa stranded in the Nasr goal with a viciously curling free kick from 25 yards. In the added minutes of the first half, Dagano unleashed another free kick from identical range, but this time Moosa was equal to it.
Moosa denied the visitors again in the 52nd minute, leaping high to punch away a stinging Bakari Kone volley. Two minutes later, the Nasr goalkeeper was tested again by Adel Lamy's effort from the left.
The second half bought fewer clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities for either side, until Diane scored the winner in the second minute of injury time when he curled a shot beyond the diving Lekhwiya keeper from inside the penalty area.
Nasr and Zenga will cherish these points, for they come in probably the toughest group of the competition. Lekhwiya are cruising towards their second consecutive league title in Qatar with a nine-point lead over their nearest challengers, Sepahan enjoy a three-point cushion at the top of the league table in Iran, while Al Ahli are just one point behind leaders Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia.
Zenga has conceded his team lacked the quality that the others in the group boast, but will undoubtedly be proud his side are up and running in Group C, even if only a few thousand turned up to witness it.
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