x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Asian Champions League: Al Ain fluff their lines in Tehran against Esteghlal

Al Ain outplayed their opponents, Esteghlal, everywhere except where it counts - on the scoreboard. The Pro League side shake off intimidating Azadi Stadium in Tehran but still drop a 2-0 match in the Asian Champions League.

Mohamed Ahmad of Al Ain, right, tries to control the ball against Siavash Akbarpour of Esteghlal during their soccer match in AFC Champions League at the Azadi stadium in Tehran.
Mohamed Ahmad of Al Ain, right, tries to control the ball against Siavash Akbarpour of Esteghlal during their soccer match in AFC Champions League at the Azadi stadium in Tehran.

Superior in possession, attempts at goal and perhaps in overall craft, Al Ain were left in their opponents' slipstream in only one facet. It just so happened it was the most significant.

For when the UAE champions wake from their slumber this morning, hazy heads will still question how exactly they lost this Asian Champions League encounter.

Granted, Esteghlal are a club of considerable merit, perched at the summit of the Iranian top flight, but for the majority of this Group D tussle they were second best to the visiting Emiratis.

Much was made pre-match of the intimidating Azadi Stadium - a venerable ground known for its vehement support - yet until just after the hour Al Ain had generated a worried hush among the locals.

Then disaster struck.

With their midfield temporarily slackened, Jlloyd Samuel ghosted into the penalty area to powerfully steer his header past a rooted Dawoud Sulaiman in the Al Ain goal.

A former full-back in England's Premier League with Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers, Samuel has reinvented himself to rejuvenate a stuttering career, the remodelled midfielder scoring his second goal in two Champions League matches.

With Al Ain stunned and the Azadi finally awakened, Esteghlal again drew blood nine minutes later, although it owed much to their rivals' sudden incompetence.

Defenders Ismail Ahmed and Mohaned Salem appeared to be treading treacle as Farhad Majidi raced clear, the substitute unleashing a low shot that somehow slipped under Sulaiman's gloves.

It would have been doubly difficult for Al Ain to swallow - Majidi was formerly one of their own, a winner of the competition with the Garden City club almost a decade ago.

At 2-0 down, Al Ain's hopes of successive victories in this nascent campaign evaporated into the Tehran night.

It seemed set to be oh so different. Having started brightly, Al Ain controlled the first half, containing the hosts and creating the better opportunities.

Jires Kembo-Ekoko acted the role of arch villain, the Frenchman a constant menace although he would be found guilty of wasting a golden opportunity on 23 minutes.

Released on the right flank by Asamoah Gyan, Kembo-Ekoko inexplicably skied his attempt with only Mahdi Rahmati, Esteghlal's experienced custodian, to beat.

Gyan, too, had clear sights at goal, but the Pro League's top scorer was less accurate than usual. Al Ain's ascendancy continued after half time, Mirel Radoi nestling a sublime half-volley on the top of the home netting before Alex Brosque spurned arguably the away side's clearest chance.

Esteghlal, maybe imbued by their great escape, swiftly struck twice to seal the three points.

Whether Al Ain were diminished by a recent heavy workload, as coach Cosmin Olaroiu constantly reminds, is open for debate, but they continued to press for a way back into the game.

It would not arrive despite late opportunities for Kembo-Ekoko and Yousef Ahmed, Al Ain's woes compounded by the withdrawal on 81 minutes of Omar Abdulrahman.

The star man looked to have tweaked his heavily strapped left knee while trying to lift the ball over the Esteghlal defence.

The pass appeared routine, Al Ain's defeat anything but.

 

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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