Al Ahli draw at Al Hilal to earn advantage in Asian Champions League semi-final

Al Ahli were eight minutes from recording a landmark victory against Al Hilal in a raucous Riyadh on Tuesday night.

Ailton Almeida, centre, produced the equaliser for Al Hilal aginast Al Ahli in the Asian Champions League semi-final first leg Fayez Nureldine / AFP
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Al Hilal 1-1 Al Ahli

Hilal – Almeida 82

Ahli – Lima 57

MOM - Kwon Kyung-won (Ahli)

It was so, so close for Al Ahli.

So close to the perfect result, so close to taking a huge step towards the Asian Champions League final.

The UAE side, contesting the last four of the continental competition for the first time in their history, were eight minutes from recording a landmark victory against Al Hilal in a raucous Riyadh on Tuesday night. But then Ailton Almeida struck.

The Brazilian, a summer signing from Russia’s Terek Grozny, rose highest to meet Carlos Eduardo’s corner and powered his header down past Ahmed Dida in the Ahli goal. From 1-0 to 1-1 in the blink of an eye. Ahli departed the semi-final first leg at the King Fahd Stadium slightly disappointed - justifiably so, since they had worked diligently for the win - but once the dust settles they will realise this constitutes an excellent result.​

Hilal, twice champions of Asia, represent one of football’s most inhospitable hosts, and the proof is in their recent record: undefeated at home in the tournament for the past two years, they have played 12 matches, winning 10.

Yet Ahli came close to breaking that streak, when Rodrigo Lima connected with Everton Ribeiro’s 57th-minute free-kick and thundered a header into the Hilal net.

The Brazilian has now plundered eight goals in seven appearances since his summer move from Benfica, but his most recent is undoubtedly the most important. Just like he did against Naft Tehran in the first leg of the quarter-final, Lima has provided Ahli with a precious away goal, something to take back to Dubai, something to cling to, to build on when Hilal come to town in three weeks’ time.

A clean sheet, however unlikely in a contest between these two talented teams, would guarantee Ahli’s place in the tournament’s showpiece.

They have more to show for their efforts in the Saudi Arabian capital courtesy in large part to Eduardo’s miscue from the penalty spot. Hilal’s attacking midfielder and creative hub, so deadly for his new club already this season, was awarded the spot-kick following Salmeen Khamis’s wild error in the 66th minute.

Believing the ball had trickled across the goalline, the Ahli defender simply scooped it up, only for the referee’s assistant to deem it had not rolled across the white marking. Replays conveyed it had.

But it mattered little, when Eduardo’s placed shot cannoned back off the post. Ahli had their reprieve, although it was merely fleeting.

Until that point, it had been a hyperactive match devoid of any clear-cut chances. Ahmed Khalil had gone closest for the visitors in the first half, when his deflected effort from outside the area whistled narrowly wide.

By that time, Hilal will feel they should have had the lead. In the ninth minute, Almeida broke into the Ahli box, barged past Majed Hassan and then was grounded by Habib Fardan’s challenge. The Emirati had a chunk of Almeida’s shirt, yet the referee simply waved away the Saudi’s appeals for a spot-kick.

“Only the blind could see that it’s not a penalty,” declared the BeIn Sports commentator, attempting to sum up the sense of injustice.

Lima could have added to Hilal’s malaise in the dying moments, too, but his first effort was saved and then his follow-up collected. However, Ahli should return to the UAE with heads held high, for it was almost mission accomplished. Halfway through this semi-final, they have half a foot in the last round.

So, so close in Riyadh, they are closer still to Asian club football’s greatest prize. Roll on Dubai on October 20.

POST-MATCH REACTION:

Cosmin Olaroiu, Ahli coach – “We did not expect it to be an easy game. We know they have good team and quality players and the super fans made it difficult to control possession, but we succeeded in what we wanted to do. We scored but we were not able to win, and even had a chance to score at the end of the game, which would have changed the situation a little bit. But overall it is a positive result, but still not enough to qualify. We have one match left back home to prepare for.”

Ahmad Khalil, Ahli captain - “We played a good game. We tried to dominate possession from the start, but these games are tough. Playing away to Al Hilal, we knew it would be very difficult. But we have to think of what’s coming, that’s more important. We have to work on certain issues that did not work out for us today, and we need to fix them for the second leg.”

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