It was a contest played in the stands as much as it was on the field.
Al Shabab of the UAE against newly crowned Iranian champions Esteghlal was always going to be a tense match. And it proved to be so in more ways than one.
The UAE lost three of its four representatives in the Asian Champions League at the group stage; Al Shabab are now carrying the flag on the continent. Their fans had clearly received the message. The UAE flag, rather than the green colours of the club, were everywhere. And rarely has the national anthem been sung with as much passion as it was last night.
"Today Al Shabab is the UAE," said one fan. "They represent all of us."
Esteghlal's fans, all 1,500 of them, gave as good as they got. Outside the stadium, many more Iranians who live in the UAE were locked out.
But it was an Iranian star who had called the Emirates his home for seven years who proved to be the difference between the two teams. Farhad Majidi was head and shoulders above at Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium last night.
The 26-year-old Esteghlal captain had, between 2000 and 2007, played for Al Wasl for five seasons, Al Ain (two loans), Al Nasr and Al Ahli. Yesterday he returned to inspire a 4-2 victory in a stadium he knew well, and all but condemn Al Shabab to a quick exit from the knockout stages of this year's competition.
It had all looked so bright for Shabab at half time. A good first half turned into an excellent one when Luiz Henrique scored with the last kick of the first half.
By then, the tension in the stands had risen. Esteghlal substitute Hanif Omran, while warming up during the first half, had gesticulated offensively in the direction of Shabab's fans. They howled their disapproval. The Iranian fans cheered. The AFC might well have to take disciplinary action retroactively.
"Emirati, Emirati," chanted a group supporters. The atmosphere in the stands remained charged. But Shabab's players needed to keep calm. Having scored, keeping a clean sheet was now the priority. But within nine minutes of the restart, they had given away an away goal, scored by former Aston Villa left-back Jlloyd Samuel.
A devastating last 20 minutes highlighted the difference in quality between the two teams. The killer blow came from another former UAE resident, the ex-Al Wahda and Sharjah midfielder Javad Nekounam, who scored with a powerful header to make it 2-1. Two soon became three, the peerless Majidi arriving late in the box to score with another flicked effort with ten minutes to go. Some fans had seen enough, and left early.
Briefly Shabab gave their stunned supporters hope with a goal by Edgar Bruno. It didn't last, Khosro Heidari scoring with a wonderful late volley.
The game, and perhaps the tie, was up for the UAE's last remaining hope of glory.
At the end, the Esteghlal players and coaches, supremely confident of a win beforehand, had the air of a team that knew they were through to the next round.
In the stands, the Emirati fans who remained continued to sing. But it was the noisy Iranian contingent that was celebrating. As they will likely be doing next week in Tehran.
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