Al Ain set up another clash with Al Ahli as UAE’s fiercest rivals battle for Asian slice

A 3-0 victory over Naft Tehran means they finished unbeaten in six matches in Group B and boasting the competition’s finest defence with just two goals.conceded.

Omar Abdulrahman, right, Asamoah Gyan and Jires Kembo Ekoko (no 9, centre) were among the goals for Al Ain against Naft Tehran. AFP
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Well, this just got rather more interesting.

As expected last night, Al Ain put the finishing touches on another successful Asian Champions League group campaign, defeating Naft Tehran of Iran 3-0 at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

The victory, courtesy of goals from Omar Abdulrahman, Asamoah Gyan and Jires Kembo Ekoko, was the Arabian Gulf League club’s first at home in Asia this term, confirming them as Group B winners.

Al Ain finished unbeaten in six matches and boasting the competition’s finest defence with just two goals conceded.

They were so impressive, in fact, that qualification for the knockout stages was sealed in their penultimate fixture, two weeks ago.

But Al Ain, semi-finalists last year, will not dwell on what has gone before when the most tantalising of prospects lies ahead. As their pool’s strongest side, coach Zlatko Dalic’s side next face in the last 16 the runners-up of Group D, which was finalised 24 hours previously, not far the Garden City.

Al Ain have set up a winner-takes-all clash with Dubai’s Al Ahli, their fiercest rivals, to be played across two legs later this month. Roll on May 20.

“I wanted to play against a different team, not from the UAE, so we could possibly have two of our clubs in the quarter-finals,” said Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman, somewhat tempering the anticipation.

“It won’t be easy, but we’ll be ready for them and will take it step-by-step to achieve our target to go to the final.”

Against Naft, Al Ain initially played like a team whose minds were already focused on their next assignment.

Yet they sprung to life just after the hour, when Abdulrahman drilled a shot that found the net, eventually, via a deflection. It represented the playmaker’s first Champions League goal this season.

Gyan, the most reliable of scorers at this level, doubled his side’s lead 11 minutes later, thrashing a fine volley into the roof of the goal from just inside the area.

With the outcome settled, Kembo Ekoko further inflated the scoreline with a tap-in shortly before the final whistle.

Al Ain, already crowned Arabian Gulf League champions, can afford to look towards that tussle with Ahli, the club from whom they have seized the domestic title.

It simply adds to what has become UAE football’s most fractious enmity, but also guarantees, for the second year running, that the Emirates will be represented at the quarter-final stage of the continent’s elite club competition.

Whoever takes that slot, the drama will surely be in getting there.

REPORT CARD

Al Ain rating

7/10 Dominated possession but did not capitalise until midway through the second half. Still, Al Ain proved to be far superior.

Naft Tehran rating

5/10 Threatened at times in the first 45 minutes yet struggled to contain Al Ain after the break. Still advanced as group runners-up.

Our verdict

Al Ain were in cruise control for much of the match, clinching top spot in the group. They will now look forward with relish at their last-16 tie with rivals Al Ahli.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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