AL AIN // Al Ain are halfway there, 50 per cent closer to completing their semi-final mission after a frenetic and frantic first leg against El Jaish.
The Garden City club, the UAE’s sole Asian Champions League winners, struck late at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday night in their most coveted competition, Caio blasting into an empty net to seal a 3-1 victory and hoist his side into what they hope will represent an unassailable position.
Al Ain celebrated wildly at the conclusion. Their continental dream edges closer to its realisation. At times, it was a roller-coaster of an encounter.
• Asian Champions League: Al Ain's Omar Abdulrahman 'the best player in Asia,' says El Jaish manager
The hosts were quickly on an upward trajectory, racing to a 2-0 lead not long into the contest. But they allowed El Jaish back in shortly after half time, before Caio hit a hammer blow as the clocked ticked past 90 minutes. The Brazilian, a summer signing who has developed a knack of grabbing crucial goals, notched another. It could prove to be his most significant.
All three from Al Ain bore Omar Abdulrahman’s heavy influence. The UAE playmaker, wearing the captain’s armband, first weaved his way into the El Jaish penalty area on 16 minutes and clipped a cross to Douglas at the far post, who rose to meet it and headed home. The striker, so often derided by his own supporters, had finally earned a reprieve.
Within five minutes, Al Ain doubled their lead. Again, Abdulrahman came to the fore, floating a free kick from 20 yards past the sprawling Khalifa Ababacar in the El Jaish goal. He took off towards the home bench with his teammates trailing in his wake, the stadium rocking to its chief conductor’s beat.
Al Ain were rampant, El Jaish ragged.
Yet the Qataris issued a warning on the stroke of half time, when Romarinho struck the crossbar with a free kick. Then, soon after the break, El Jaish pulled one back. In the process, they grabbed what seemed set to be a pivotal away goal.
Much to Al Ain’s anguish, it was crafted by their own left-footed No 10. Sardor Rashidov, the powerful Uzbek international, led a counter-attack on 51 minutes and, as he advanced into the Al Ain penalty area, attempted to lay on the ball to Romarinho. However, Ismail Ahmed slipped and blocked the ball with his arm, leaving Rashidov to coolly convert from the spot.
Understandably, it had a redemptive effect on El Jaish, forcing Al Ain deep into defence, back into their shell. Now dominant, their rivals pushed forward for even more bounty, but returning goalkeeper Khalid Essa denied a Rashidov volley and then clawed the resultant corner from underneath his crossbar.
The hosts required a spark, so Dalic sent on Danilo Asprilla. Predictably, the Colombian probed from his customary position on the right wing, dragging one shot wide of El Jaish’s near post and frustrating the Al Ain fans when too often reluctant to pull the trigger.
At the other end, Romarinho nearly equalised but skewed a shot narrowly wide, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from all those in attendance. The match grew stretched as both teams searched for another, yet neither made the most of dangerous positions until Caio popped up right on full time.
Ababacar erred, spilling an Abdulrahman cross that bounced off an El Jaish defender and fell the a grateful Caio to thrash home from close range. Suddenly, the tie took on a completely different complexion.
They will do it all again in Doha on October 18. Al Ain, homing in on a second Asian crown, on the cusp of achieving an incessant ambition, sit pretty. Yet they remain only halfway there.
Tuesday, first leg
• Al Ain 3 El Jaish 1
Wednesday, first leg
• Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors v FC Seoul, 2pm (UAE)
Return legs are October 18 and 19.
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