x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Asian Champions League: Al Ain drop in standings after being outclassed at Al Hilal

A homecoming for manager Cosmin Olaroiu and Mirel Radoi is spoiled as Al Ain are blanked at Al Hilal and swap places with the Saudi side in the Asian Champions League Group D standings, writes John McAuley.

Al Ain’s Mohammed Salem, right, gets a step on Nawaf Al Abid of Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal during their ACL match Tuesday night in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Al Ain’s Mohammed Salem, right, gets a step on Nawaf Al Abid of Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal during their ACL match Tuesday night in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

Al Hilal 2 Al Ain 0
Al Hilal Al Dawsari 4’, Wesley 24’

On a night supposedly billed as friends reunited, Al Hilal quickly forgot all sense of amity.

Yes, the Saudi Arabians played the dutiful hosts before kick-off in this all-important Asian Champions League tie, welcoming with warm embraces Cosmin Olaroiu and Mirel Radoi – past colleagues, but now the Al Ain coach and captain, respectively.

Meanwhile, Yasser Al Qahtani, the Hilal skipper, appeared enthused to recount shared memories with former teammates of last season's Pro League title triumph.

Even Olaroiu spruced up for the occasion, ditching the traditional club-issue T-shirt and tracksuit for a plush suit jacket. Good impressions were sought to be made, yet Al Ain retreated from the Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium with their reputation somewhat tattered.

As are their dreams of Champions League glory, with the defeat squeezing them to third in Group D, three points behind second-placed Hilal with only next week's match against leaders Esteghlal remaining.

A fortunate turn of events is required if Al Ain are to qualify by virtue of their superior head-to-head record, secured courtesy of February's 3-1 triumph at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.

The last time those venerable Garden City surroundings staged a match it was to confirm Al Ain's clinching of successive league titles, when on Thursday they defeated Dubai to spark wild celebrations.

Here, among the heat and the hostility of a fervent Riyadh crowd, Olaroiu's troops appeared to be suffering a hangover from the past few days' festivities. If, pre-match, this encounter resembled something of a high-school reunion, Al Ain arrived already merry from recent escapades and departed punch-drunk.

They were quickly stung. As early as the fourth minute, Hilal took a quick corner in which Salem Al Dawsari swapped passes with Nawaf Al Abid before drilling a thunderous shot past Mahmoud Al Mas, the Al Ain goalkeeper.

Ragged and overrun, the visitors soon found themselves two goals down. On 23 minutes, Wesley traded the ball with Al Qahtani to draw Al Mas from his line, the Brazilian nonchalantly scooping his finish into the net.

Al Ain needed half time to shock them from their slumber. They returned from the break refreshed and swiftly set about cutting the deficit, Alex Brosque spurning a golden opportunity when he fired over with only Abdullah Al Sudairy to beat. The Hilal stopper was then called into action, saving smartly from Brosque's fierce effort.

However, as Al Ain pushed forward they were always susceptible to the counter, evidenced in two manic minutes when Abdullah Al Zori both stung the palms of Al Mas and curled a sweet attempt off the upright.

The woodwork was shaken, much like Al Ain's Champions League dream. The UAE champions stood firm until the final whistle, although the bell is tolling on their continental crusade.

Man of the match Abdullah Al Zori (Al Hilal)

 

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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