x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Asian Champions League: Fans flock but Al Shabab no match for their visitors

Esteghlal supporters outnumbered the home fans and egged on by the blue jerseys in the stands, the Tehran giants bounced back from a goal down to return home with a 4-2 win in the first leg of this last-16 clash, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Esteghlal's Khosro Heidari, left, and Al Shabab's Ali Hamdan in action during their Asian Champions League match in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
Esteghlal's Khosro Heidari, left, and Al Shabab's Ali Hamdan in action during their Asian Champions League match in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
DUBAI // Earlier this year, Al Shabab chairman Sami Al Qamzi had described the club's fans as "sloths", who prefer to laze "in the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms" instead of coming to the stadium to support their team.
But with Shabab appearing in the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League for the first time, the players must have been hoping for a greater turnout. They did get their wish, but with plenty of support from the fans of Al Nasr, Al Ahli, Al Wahda, Baniyas and other Pro League clubs.
Even then, the Esteghlal supporters outnumbered the home fans and egged on by the blue jerseys in the stands, the Tehran giants bounced back from a goal down to return home with a 4-2 win in the first leg of this last-16 clash.
"I really want to thank all the fans who came here to support us," said Amir Ghalenoei, the Esteghlal coach. "In Iran, we have a saying that the fans are your 12th man and the fans played their part tonight. If this match was on Friday, I believe the whole stadium would have been full of Iranian fans."
The Iranian supporters did fill half the stadium though and it proved enough for the visitors as they bounced back after conceding a goal in the added minutes of first half. Taking advantage of a casual clearance by Javad Nekounam, Luiz Henrique made space for himself and drilled the ball into the far corner.
"We knew we were facing a really good team, so in the first half we tried to press and put pressure on their midfield," said Marcos Paqueta, the Shabab coach. "The strategy worked for us and we got a goal.
"In the second half, however, we fell back a little and this allowed them more space. This probably was the main reason for the loss.
"We made some mistakes in defence as well, but I am happy with the performance of my players. They fought hard and performed at a good level.
"We also need to remember that we were missing four important players [through suspension]."
One of those four players was the UAE international Walid Abbas and if he was present in the Shabab defence, Azizbek Haydarov might not have been forced to play so deep. But with the Uzbek helping out the depleted defence, Shabab lost the midfield battle and, ultimately, the match.
Esteghlal drew level in the 55th minute when Jlloyd Samuel pounced on a rebound and slotted home. Nekounam headed in Esteghlal's second in the 72nd minute and the visitors were up 3-1 eight minutes later when veteran striker Farhad Majidi sneaked in on the right to nod home.
Shabab, however, did not give up and pulled one back in the 85th minute when Edgar Bruno headed in from a corner. But as they went in search of the equaliser, Khosro Heidari, Esteghlal's most impressive player of the night, blasted home from outside the box a minute from full time.
Ghalenoei was pleased to be taking this 4-2 score line back to Tehran for next Wednesday's second leg, but the Iranian coach warned the tie is far from over.
"We won a very difficult match," he said. "Shabab did not concede many goals in their group matches, but we managed to score four goals here and I believe it was due to the courage my players showed in the second half.
"But this is only the first leg. We still have the second leg in Tehran and that game will be very important. So we cannot afford to relax."
Paqueta, however, has more or less waved the white flag on Shabab's chances.
"We can never say never in football," said the Brazilian. "But really, our situation is very difficult because we have to score three goals and not receive any.
"We should also be aware that we will be playing a very good team in their home ground."
 
arizvi@thenational.ae
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