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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Al Ain claim fourth successive draw to keep Asian Champions League campaign intact

Shiotani cancels out Thiam's opener as the UAE club remain unbeaten in Group D

Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman, centre, in action against Esteghlal on Monday. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA
Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman, centre, in action against Esteghlal on Monday. Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Another Asian Champions League night, another draw for Al Ain. Unlike those that had gone before, this one felt redemptive. It was necessary, too.

Al Ain trailed Iran’s Esteghlal by one goal in Tehran on Monday night, the UAE club set for a first defeat to go with three previous draws. A loss would have almost extinguished their hopes of progression.

But then Tsukasa Shiotani thundered home an equaliser 11 minutes from time to silence the typically boisterous Azadi Stadium and Al Ain’s continental campaign remained intact.

With four matches gone in Group D, and with two still to come, the Arabian Gulf League leaders stay third in the standings, two points off top spot.

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The Emirates’ sole Asian champions, and runners-up as recently as two years ago, their 2018 bid is still in their hands.

It was very nearly not. Initially, Al Ain had been outdone by a familiar foe. Mame Thiam scored both goals in the reverse fixture last week, a 2-2 draw at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium made notable for two Al Ain penalties late on.

This time, Esteghlal celebrated when granted a spot-kick. On 39 minutes, Ismail Ahmed was adjudged to have tripped Farshid Esmaeili, although the hosts’ midfielder had launched himself unnaturally into the Al Ain area. Despite the visitors’ protestations, Thiam kept his cool. It was his third goal against Khalid Essa in six days.

Before that, the contest had been pretty even. Without the in-form Hussein El Shahat and winger Caio, Al Ain more than held their own, limiting Esteghlal to few decent chances. In the ninth minute, Omid Ebrahimi fired high over the goal.

At the other end, Omar Abdulrahman rocked the Esteghlal woodwork. Cutting inside on his favoured left foot, the Al Ain captain’s long-range shot was destined for the top corner, yet Hossein Hosseini tipped the ball onto the bar.

Then Thiam struck from the spot and sent Al Ain chasing an equaliser. Eventually it came, once Abdulrahman’s sweeping pass found Shiotani and once the Japanese midfielder sprinted across the Esteghlal penalty area. From there, he curled a superb effort past Hosseini.

Al Ain could have snatched it, too, but Marcus Berg screwed wide and Hosseini repelled Ahmed Khalil. Essa was made to work as well, standing strong to block Ali Ghorbani from close range.

In the end, the spoils were shared, just as they were last week. Just as they have been for Al Ain throughout this Group D. Their record reads four from four, although they will be thankful their Champions League remains alive.

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