AL AIN // From the familiar purple to a striking gold, the change of their shirt colours brought a gilt-edged performance from Al Ain. The 2003 winners of the of the Asian Champions League got their title hopes in the continental competition back on track last night with a superb 2-1 win over Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia in their Group C match in Al Ain.
The only disappointing part of their day came when the influential Jorge Valdivia was sent off for two bookings. Yet they showed their determination to preserve the lead with 10 men for the last 20 minutes to take their tally to four points, two behind the group leaders Pakhtakor, who beat Sepahan of Iran 2-1 in last night's other game. Marcio Emerson marked his return from injury with a goal to give the home side a 14th-minute lead and the Argentine Jose Sand doubled it nine minutes later when a rebound fell into his path after a header from Valdivia was blocked by Waleed Abdulla. The visitors pulled one back a minute into first-half added time when Abdulaziz al Saran's shot from the edge of the box took a slight deflection off the defender Ismail Ahmed that caught the Al Ain goalkeeper, Waleed Salem, unawares.
It also allowed Shabab to get back into the game after they survived a first-half onslaught from the home side. Al Ain had a chance of going ahead as early as the sixth minute. A Valdivia header fell short and Sand's follow-up effort from in front of the posts was wide. Emerson's dipping shot from outside the box was pushed over by Abdulla but there was no stopping his next move. Emerson worked in tandem with Valdivia, who split the Shabab defence to set up the Brazilian with only the goalkeeper to beat, which he duly did by drawing Abdulla out and tapping the ball into an empty net.
Emerson had a hand in the second goal as well when his cross was headed towards the goal by Valdivia for Sand to tap in the rebound. Al Ain could have scored again if Emerson's effort from another through pass from Valdivia had not been smothered by Sanad Shrahaeli on the half hour. Emerson had a couple more chances in the second half. An early second-half attempt from inside the box was pushed out by Abdulla and a second was a sitter in front of the posts, which was again fended away by the alert Shabab goalkeeper.
Toninho Cerezo fielded all his four foreigners in the lineup, including the South Korean midfielder Lee Ho, and they were solid in attack and defence. Valdivia, the Chile midfielder, back in his pivotal position, controlled the game as Emerson and Sand led the attack. Lee Ho marshalled the defence as Al Ain looked easily the better team on the night, even after they were reduced to 10 players. Shabab came close to levelling the score three times. Majed al Marhoum's effort was wide and Salem made two superb saves, denying al Saran a second and pushing out a rocket shot from the Brazilian Marcelo Commacho in added time. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Noureldine al Obaidi is confident his Al Ahli players will give a good account of themselves against the champions of Saudi Arabia, Al Hilal. Ahli are already up against it, having lost their opening two Asian Champions League games. Playing against Hilal, who have a 100 per cent record and won their domestic league with four games to go, is going to make qualifying for the knockout stages an even tougher proposition. But al Obaidi, who took over as caretaker manager from Henk ten Cate, who quit this month, believes his side are capable of surprising Hilal. "We have to make sure we keep the ball for as long as possible and not make too many errors, especially in defence," said the Tunisian. "Hilal have many players who can shoot from a distance, so we will have to be on guard." But with the likes of Yasser al Qahtani in attack and the Romanian midfielder Meriel Radoi playing behind him, the Ahli defence can expect a busy time. Al Obaidi, who is standing in as coach for the second time this season, has played tapes of Hilal's matches for his team and is hoping the players will learn from them. "If we can move quickly from defence to attack, and send the ball forward, I think we can cause a few surprises," he said. Al Hilal v Al Ahli, 9.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1
Josef Hickersberger, the Al Wahda coach, has labelled tonight's Group B clash with Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad as a must-win game if they are to progress past the group stages of the Asian Champions League. The Abu Dhabi team have lost both games so far and Hickersberger is aware that his men need points on the board, and quickly. He sees the game against Ittihad, who have lost one and drawn one, as the ideal opportunity to break the duck. "This game is important for both teams now at the bottom of the group after two rounds," he said. "Obviously we need to win to have a chance to stay in the ACL race, and we will give it our best shot. A draw will do no good for both teams. We are still in the competition with four more games left. And if we can win this game, we are back." Ittihad, winners of the Asian Champions League in 2004 and 2005 and last year's losing finalist to Pohang Steelers of South Korea, have conceded five goals in their two games. "As a team, I don't find them as complete because the defence is not as good as their attack," said Hickersberger. "So we see some weakness in them and we will try to use that to our advantage." Wahda's midfielder Pinga is doubtful and Mohammed Othman is out injured. Al Wahda v Al Ittihad, 7.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 1