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Al Ahli post first Asian Champions League win in dramatic fashion

Ismail Al Hammadi scored the winning goal in the 95th minute to lift Al Ahli to a 2-1 victory over Sepahan in an Asian Champions League match in Iran, writes John McAuley.

Iran's Sepahan Shojae Khalilzadeh, left, fights for the ball against Al Ahli's Ahmed Khalil during their Asian Champions League group D football match at the Foolad Shahr Stadium in Isfahan, on March 19, 2014. Khalil scored and Al Ahli won 2-1. AFP PHOTO/STR
Iran's Sepahan Shojae Khalilzadeh, left, fights for the ball against Al Ahli's Ahmed Khalil during their Asian Champions League group D football match at the Foolad Shahr Stadium in Isfahan, on March 19, 2014. Khalil scored and Al Ahli won 2-1. AFP PHOTO/STR

Sepahan 1 Al Ahli 2

SepahanAl Ahli Man of the match Ahmed Mahmoud (Al Ahli)

Where Al Ain and Al Jazira had blazed a trail before them, Al Ahli swiftly followed suit.

The Dubai club, almost unrivalled this season in UAE football, have struggled for superiority on foreign soil, but departed Round 3 of the Asian Champions League group stages with a vital victory Wednesday night and a share of top spot in their pool.

Compatriots Al Ain and Jazira had secured the summit in their respective groups with successes 24 hours earlier and Ahli were not to be outdone against Sepahan in Iran, albeit they arrived at their present status in stunning fashion.

Having taken the lead at the Foolad Shahr Stadium through Ahmed Khalil’s first-half thunderbolt, Cosmin Olaroiu’s men appeared poised for yet another draw when Sergio van Dijk struck what seemed a hammer blow 16 minutes from time.

But as the hosts poured forward in search of a winner, Ahli delivered a knockout of their own deep into injury-time, substitute Ismail Al Hammadi finishing a superb counter-attack with a perfectly placed shot high into the home goal.

With it, Ahli registered their first away triumph in the Champions League in 14 attempts and kept alive aspirations of progressing beyond their Group D. It is a clogged table – Al Sadd’s draw with Al Hilal means three points separate the quartet – but the manner of the win will give the UAE club fresh vigour.

That much is needed should their unlikely quest for four trophies continue; Sepahan were Ahli’s third fixture in a sequence that sees them play 13 times in seven weeks.

Yet the Arabian Gulf League leaders have plenty of momentum to guide them through the closing few months and, when they likely look back upon its conclusion with titles in the cabinet, this may be deemed the spark for a remarkable run.

Sepahan might sit fifth in the Iranian Pro League but they always represent formidable opponents at this level. They have been beaten only once in 18 previous Champions League ties at home.

How they must not have expected it, then, when Khalil dispatched a missile from 35 yards to gift the visitors an advantage. The Emirati, typically consigned to the Ahli bench, made the most of a rare start to remind why he was not long ago considered the UAE’s great hope.

Van Dijk’s 74th-minute leveller threatened to spoil Ahli’s party only for Al Hammadi to latch on to Grafite’s lay-off moments before the final whistle and lift his shot past Rahman Ahmadi, the flat-footed Sepahan goalkeeper.

It sparked wild celebrations among the Ahli contingent, who would have been determined to join Al Ain and Jazira on their perch during these heady times for UAE representatives in Asia.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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