Emirates 0 // Zob Ahan 1
RAS AL KHAIMAH // Emirates Club's dream Asian Champions League run at home came to a heartbreaking end last night when they lost by a lone goal to Iranian powerhouses Zob Ahan.
Mohammed Ghazi scored the winner in the 78th minute, but Emirates were never out of the match against last year's losing finalists, the UAE Division One club punching well above their weight to keep the match alive until the final whistle.
Where the likes of Al Jazira, the Pro League leaders, and Al Wahda, the defending UAE champions, have failed to win a single game, and Al Ain are languishing at the bottom of their group, Emirates have been flying the country's flag high and proud. They remain the only team to still with a chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages, albeit an outside one now.
With a game to play, against Al Rayyan in Qatar, Emirates are currently second in the group with six points, seven behind leaders Zob Ahan. Al Shabab, who are also in contention, play Zob Ahan away in the final round and that should raise Emirates' hopes of progressing.
As the Ras al Khaimah fans came out in numbers to support their team, Karim Kerkar, the Emirates captain, almost gave them something to really celebrate with a curling free kick in the ninth minute that just missed the mark.
Fans were on their feet, clutching their head in disbelief and a similar reaction followed three minutes later as Kerkar again went close with another free kick.
Starved of top-flight football, the Emirates fans were determined to make the most of this game. A simple collection by the goalkeeper or a tackle by the defence was celebrated with fervour. And if any of their men were bought down by the opposition, the whole stadium rose as one in protest.
Kerkar, the France-born Algerian, was usually the cause of most of the noise in the stands; he had the fans on their feet for the umpteenth time in the 32nd minute when he latched on to a cross from Hareb al Madhawi and shot towards goal.
His effort beat Shahab Gordan, the Zob Ahan keeper, but Kerkar had narrowly missed the target yet again. He was getting close, but not close enough. Amer Deeb also went close in the 40th minute when he found space inside a crowded box, but his shot went straight to the keeper.
At the other end, the Emirates defence had kept the Zob Ahan marksmen on a tight leash. Ahmed al Shaji, the goalkeeper for the home team, was also in fine form, cutting out crosses before they could reach their targets.
Al Shaji's toughest period came in the closing minute of the first session, but with good support from Ali Rabea, Mohammed Ali and Abdulla al Balooshi, he managed to eliminate the threats posed by Igor Castro and Mohammed Khalatbari.
The keeper was brilliant again at the restart, leaping high to touch a Farshid Talebi lob over the bar four minutes after resumption. The Zob Ahan defender had tried his luck from outside the box.
Al Shaji made a similar stop in the 70th minute, but then lost his cool and received a yellow card for pushing Khalatbari to the floor. A scuffle broke out after his petulance, but the referee quickly brought the situation under control.
Al Shaji, however, could do little except watch haplessly as Ghazi broke the deadlock in the 78th minute. The goal came courtesy of a brilliant run by Castro, who weaved his way past three defenders before flicking the ball towards Ghazi on his right, who shot low beyond the advancing keeper.
Deeb almost scored the equaliser in the 86th minute, but his stinging volley deflected off a defender for a corner.
Luck was clearly not on Emirates' side as Zob Ahan had an escape off the resulting corner as well, with the ball bouncing off the Iranian keeper's elbow onto the post and it was nudged out for another corner.