Ronaldo and Al Nassr pay penalty as Al Ain secure shoot-out victory in Champions League

Garden City club seal semi-final spot after roller-coaster clash with Saudi Pro League side in Riyadh

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Al Ain booked a place in the Asian Champions League semi-finals with an incredible penalty-shoot-out win in a thriller against Al Nassr on Monday night.

The UAE side, the only Emirati club to be crowned continental champions, prevailed 3-1 on spot-kicks after the match in Riyadh had finished 4-3 to Cristiano Ronaldo’s side for the tie to settle at 4-4. Al Ain had won last week’s first leg at home 1-0.

However, Marcelo Brozovic, Alex Telles and Otavio failed to convert their spot-kicks for the visitors at Al Awwal Park to progress to a last-four clash with either Al Hilal or Al Ittihad.

Ronaldo, who had moments before scored from the spot to force the shootout, departed the pitch visibly upset by the result.

Just like seven days previously, Al Ain took a deserved lead. As it was at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Sofiane Rahimi raced away from the Nassr defence, set clear by Kaku’s sumptuous slide pass, and the Moroccan finished superbly through goalkeeper Raghed Al Najjar’s legs. The goal was initially chalked off, but after a protracted VAR review, the decision was reversed.

Not long after Essa had saved well from Ronaldo’s low shot, Al Ain were two goals to the good. On 45 minutes, Matias Palacious played in Rahimi on the left, with the forward shaping to curl into the far corner before chopping his shot inside Nassr’s near post. It was an expert effort, Rahimi the Saudi side’s bete noire once more.

However, right when the hosts appeared rattled, a reprieve. Essa went chasing Brozovic’s overhit pass to Sadio Mane, following the Senegal striker outside his area and was then left stranded. Mane’s scuffed shot fell right at Abdulrahman Gareeb’s feet, with the Nassr forward slotting home. A lifeline, it arrived in the fifth minute of first-half stoppage time.

On 52 minutes, Nassr had parity in the match, when Otavio drove to the byline and drilled a cross that cannoned off Essa’s legs and flew into the net.

Then came an astonishing Ronaldo’s miss. Essa pawed a deflected shot right into the Portugal captain’s path and, two yards out with the goal at his mercy, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner placed the ball the wrong side of the post. He held his head in his hands.

Suddenly, though, it did not matter. Telles whipped in a free-kick from the right, Essa saw it late but should have still repelled, and the tie was back in the balance at 3-3.

Al Ain were distraught, manager Hernan Crespo, too. The Argentine complained that, only moments before, Mane should’ve seen red for grabbing Al Ain substitute Saeed Juma by the throat. Replays suggested the former Liverpool forward was fortunate only to be booked.

In the first half of extra-time, Nassr were reduced to 10 men. Ayman Yahya hurdled a teammate, but came clattering down on Bandar Al Ahbabi, both sets of studs raking the Al Ain’s captain’s body. Having originally brandished the yellow, the referee consulted VAR and upgraded to red.

Almost immediately, Al Ain made their numerical advantage count, even if it did require a huge helping hand from Nassr’s Al Najjar. Palacios skewed a speculative cross towards goal, Al Najjar somehow fumbled it unchallenged, and winger Sultan Al Shamsi was on hand to poke home.

Out of nowhere, Al Ain had the upper hand. Eventually, they would be pegged back. With four minutes remaining, Juma was adjudged to have pulled back Ronaldo in the area as the forward was poised to meet a cross, and a penalty was awarded. Ronaldo chipped his spot-kick casually down the middle to send to contest to penalties.

There, Essa opened by saving brilliantly from Brozovic, Telles struck the crossbar and Otavio thrashed his penalty wide. In contrast, Al Ain stayed strong from 12 yards and advanced with a memorable victory.

Their semi-final opponent will be confirmed late on Tuesday, when two-time winners Ittihad host record four-time champions Hilal in Jeddah seeking to overturn a 2-0 deficit.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 11:17 PM