Arabian Gulf League side unlucky to have a goal disallowed as stalemate sets up mouth-watering second leg in Riyadh next month.
Ten-man Al Ain held at home by Al Hilal in first leg of ACL quarter-finals
Back in a competition that matters most, back against their great, great Gulf rivals, Al Ain could not find a way past Al Hilal in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final on Monday.
The UAE side, runners-up in last year’s competition, were held to a goalless draw at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, their threat dulled when Mohanad Salem was sent off midway through the second half.
The Saudi Arabian champions always represent stern opponents, but the first meeting between the two teams since the 2014 semi-finals ended in a stalemate. An energy-sapping evening high on endeavor, it leaves the tie delicately poised.
That felt how it should be. It could have been so different given the chances carved and the effort given. Both sides had the ball in the net in the first half. First, Omar Khribin prodded past Khalid Essa in the Al Ain goal, however the former Al Dhafra striker was clearly offside as soon as Carlos Eduardo’s attempted overhead kick began to make its way across the six-yard box.
If that was obvious, at the other end Al Ain had a real case for complaint. On 25 minutes, Omar Abdulrahman’s quick free kick was met from deep by Douglas, with the Brazilian expertly stabbing home the ball in midair. He wheeled away in celebration, only to see the referee’s assistant on the opposite side had raised his flag. Much to Al Ain’s dismay, replays deemed Douglas was just onside.
In all, it was a relatively balanced opening 45 minutes, with Mohammed Abdulrahman flashing a shot wide in the second minute, then Khribin shooting straight at Essa. Eduardo went close also with a free kick, while Omar Abdulrahman, a constant source of consternation for the visitors, tested opposing goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf from range.
Moments later, Hilal defender Osama Hawsawi blocked brilliantly from Marcus Berg’s volley. Destined for the bottom corner and set to give a debut goal to Al Ain’s summer signing, the Saudi centre-back threw himself in the path of the ball. It was a captain’s contribution.
The second half went much the way as the first. Al Ain enjoyed large spells with the ball, but simply could not find the right pass. On the hour mark, Abdulrahman forced Mayouf into action, the Saudi stopper palming the Al Ain captain’s free kick onto the crossbar.
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Six minutes later, Al Ain were reduced to 10 men. Already booked for hauling back Khribin in first-half injury time, Salem lunged recklessly at Salman Al Faraj and was promptly shown the red card. With that, and with Berg sacrificed in favour of defender Ismail Ahmed, the hosts’ chances grew longer.
Their defence was soon almost breached. Al Ain will be grateful to Matias Britas, for when the Uruguayan forward rose unmarked to meet Khribin’s cross with only Essa to beat, he somehow headed against his own arm. It was a reprieve for Zoran Mamic’s men.
That was nearly granted the perfect response four minutes from time, but Mayouf was equal to Douglas’s header, sprawling across his area to claw away the ball. Then Essa was a match for Yasser Al Shahrani's low drive, while Mohammed Jahfali headed over when free at Al Ain’s back post.
It pretty much summed up the night: two sides on a par, with it all to do again in three weeks’ time in Riyadh. September 11 calls for cool heads and sturdy hearts.