A 1-0 defeat ends hopes of reaching the knockout stages, though a victory would have been in vain anyway for the Pro League champions.
Al Ain eliminated from Asian Champions League after Esteghal loss
AL AIN // Javad Nekonam's penalty 11 minutes from the end of full time last night was the final death knell in Al Ain's disappointing Asian Champions League campaign.
The Garden City club needed a victory and an Al Rayyan win against Al Hilal in Group D's other game to stand any chance of progressing to the round of 16, but they failed to break the well-drilled defence of the Iranian powerhouse at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.
Meanwhile, Al Hilal secured second spot, regardless, after a 2-0 away win over their Qatari opponents.
Esteghlal sealed top spot with a final tally of 13 points, one more than Hilal, who join them in the knockout stages. Al Ain ended their campaign on six points, two more than bottom side Rayyan.
Siavash Akbarpour earned the spot kick for Nekonam when he went down after cleverly getting his legs around Mohammed Ahmed Gharib, the Al Ain defender, as the Japanese referee Masaaki Toma showing no hesitation in awarding the foul.
Tempers flared five minutes from time as players from both sides had to be separated after Mirel Radoi, the Al Ain midfielder, pulled Farhad Majidi off the ground, the Romanian aggrieved at what he perceived as time wasting by the Iranians.
Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach, played down the incident, saying it was a spur-of-the-moment reaction and it was forgotten just as quickly as it started.
"No harm was done to any player and no ill-feelings between the two teams after the game. It was an isolated incident and happened at the heat of the moment," the Romanian said.
"Our qualification hopes were very slim after our defeat to Hilal, but we wanted to win regardless of if we qualified or not for the next round. That didn't happen, though.
"We fielded the best available line-up and I think played well against a strong opponent.
"Esteghlal surely had their plans to preserve their lead. And at the end they achieved their objectives. Congratulations to them."
Olaroiu's side will look to put the disappointment behind them as quickly as possible though, with a President's Cup semi-final against Al Ahli to prepare for on Sunday next as they pursue a league and cup double, having already secured the Pro League championship last month.
"We have had very little time to prepare for most of our games because of the tight scheduling and playing in four different competitions," the coach said.
"The players must be praised for their work and to keep their focus. They have done wonderfully well to win the league and to reach the President's Cup semi-final. Hopefully, we can go further."
Amir Ghalenoei, the Esteghlal coach, was naturally satisfied with his team's performance and the result.
"Everything went to plan for us," he said.
"Al Ain obviously was looking for a win and we were prepared for them. We wanted to win, too, because our objective was to finish on top of our group.
"I am so sorry for Al Ain. If they were in any other group they would have qualified for the next round."
Ghalenoei, too, played down the incident in the last five minutes.
"This is football and all around the world, we see these things happening between players and officials," he said.
Despite recalling a host of their star performers, Al Ain never really caused any threat.
Ali Al Wehaibi had the UAE team's best opportunity minutes after they fell behind, after being put into space by Omar Abdulrahman, but a meek effort saw the ball ricochet off the outstretched leg of Mahdi Rahmati, the Esteghlal goalkeeper, who also did well to stop a low shot from Jires Kembo-Ekoko earlier in the match.
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