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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Al Ain endure mixed fortunes from the spot to earn Asian Champions League draw against Esteghlal

Berg missed a penalty before Khalil scored one as the UAE club claimed a third straight draw in Group D.

Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman, right, in action against Esteghlal on Tuesday. Karim Sahib / AFP
Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman, right, in action against Esteghlal on Tuesday. Karim Sahib / AFP

Al Ain’s night hinged on two penalties.

One was missed, one was put away. It robbed the UAE club of a crucial Asian Champions League victory, but still it saved their blushes, too.

Marcus Berg failed to convert, Ahmed Khalil showed him how it’s done. By the time the substitute placed the ball on the spot, four minutes from time, Al Ain had handed Iran’s Esteghlal a 2-1 lead at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Then they snatched a point. A potentially damaging defeat had been avoided.

With three matches gone in Group D, the UAE club have three draws and thus only three points. Their progression is anything but secure.

It could have been worse, but really it should have been better also. Al Ain had come into the match on the back of last week’s possibly decisive win against Arabian Gulf League title rivals Al Wahda. In a game that pitted against one another the country’s two top clubs, Al Ain prevailed 6-2.

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They had recent success against Esteghlal as well. Last year, the Garden City club defeated the Tehran team 6-2 in the Round of 16. On Match Day 3 in Champions League 2018, they had to settle for a share of the spoils.

In truth, the first half had been a pretty staid affair. It began brightly enough, with Omar Abdulrahman stinging the palms of Esteghlal goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini from distance. Seven minutes had elapsed. That was as good as it got.

Al Ain were sloppy in possession, slack without the ball. They were almost made to pay five minutes from half time, when Esteghlal striker Mame Thiam attempted to flick Server Djeparov’s in-swinging cross beyond Khalid Essa in the home goal. Thankfully for Al Ain, Thiam failed to connect.

He didn’t on the other side of the break. Seven minutes into the second half, Thiam beat centre-back Mohanad Salem to side-foot Farshid Esmaeili’s low cross into the roof of the Al Ain net. The hosts were rocked. The visitors’ bench, with former Al Ain manager Winfried Schafer at its head, erupted.

It seemed to startle Al Ain into action. From there, they pushed forward. Soon, they were rewarded. Their goal was almost a carbon copy of the one they conceded. This time, Hussein El Shahat found space to centre, Berg beat his marker to the ball and glanced home at the near post. Three minutes past the hour, Al Ain had their reprieve.

Eleven minutes later, Berg should have grabbed his second of the night. El Shahat was awarded a penalty following a slaloming run inside the Esteghlal area – the decision appeared dubious – leaving his Swedish teammate 12 yards to put his side in front.

Yet Hosseini chose right, repelling the ball onto the post. Then he blocked stoically the rebound. As that was tough enough for the hosts to take, not long after Esteghlal grabbed the lead.

Again Esmaeili found Thiam, again Thiam poked past Essa. Not quite believing their luck, Al Ain had 13 minutes to salvage something. Salvage they did, when Khalil was apparently pulled to the ground inside the Esteghlal box and Al Ain given their second spot-kick of the night.

Where Berg had erred, Khalil made no mistake. Al Ain had parity, although the lingering feeling will be that this was two points squandered.