Al Ain's Fifa Club World Cup journey continues to semi-finals after thrashing of Esperance
Arabian Gulf League title holders beat African champions 3-0 to set up a meeting with Argentina's River Plate
They might have been evicted from their home-team dressing room, and the opposition supporters may have commandeered the end of the ground where their fans usually mass.
But Al Ain still enjoyed one of their most glorious nights yet at their Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, as they beat Esperance de Tunis to set up a Fifa Club World Cup semi-final with the South American giants River Plate.
Mohammed Ahmed, Hussein El Shahat and Bandar Al Ahbabi scored the goals that toppled the African champions from Tunisia, on a raucous night in the Garden City.
It means, for a second year running, the champion side of the UAE will meet one of football’s great names for a place in the Club World Cup final.
Al Ain will be hoping to go one better than their rivals Al Jazira managed 12 months ago, when Real Madrid beat them via goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
What now stands between is a fixture against River Plate, whose path from Argentina and the Copa Libertadores to reaching this point has been a storied one.
That match on Tuesday, which will be Al Ain’s third match in six days, will see them listed again as the away team on their own turf.
Still, though, if their feats playing as the nominal visitors against Esperance are anything to go on, they should have nothing to fear.
Three days earlier, the UAE representatives had made the most sluggish start imaginable to their tournament debut, slipping to a three-goal deficit against the part-timers from New Zealand, Team Wellington. Though they eventually did recover, they did not want to make the same mistake again this time around.
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The difference was like night and day. Bayed on by an impassioned support – massed, unusually, at the away end of the ground, and struggling to be heard over the din created by the Esperance fans – Al Ain had the lead as early as the second minute.
Ahmed headed in at the near post after a right-wing corner by Rayan Yaslem, sparking euphoria among the Ainawi behind the goal.
Yaslem had been one of three changes to the starting line-up, as Al Ain continue to contend with injury and unavailability.
The virus that has spread through the club again kept Marcus Berg restricted to the role of substitute, while Ibrahim Diaky did not even make it that far.
In the absence of the Swedish centre-forward Berg, El Shalat was tasked with playing more centrally than his roving role on the right-hand side.
Maybe he should stay there. The Egyptian forward doubled Al Ain’s advantage after 17 minutes, when he kept his cool to shoot past Moez Ben Cherifa in the Esperance goal, after a sweeping move down the left flank.
Still the noise from the travelling support did not diminish, and their players chased the game ever more manically.
Taha Khenissi, the Esperance striker, hit the apex of Khalid Essa’s goal. Al Ain would have felt aggrieved had the header floated in, seeing as Ismail Ahmed, their captain and Khenissi’s likely marker, was prone in the box at the time, having been winded by a powerful shot in the build-up.
Al Ain quelled the storm, though, and played with great poise after the break in particular. They earned the reward of a third goal when Al Ahbabi, the wing back, applied to finishing touch to some fine work by Caio on the left.
Updated: December 16, 2018 10:06 AM