DUBAI // Walter Zenga saluted his Al Nasr players on Saturday night after they battled to a 3-2 win over Lokomotiv Tashkent for a place in the group stages of the Asian Champions League.
After taking the lead on the half-hour mark, Nasr found themselves trailing 2-1 on 76 minutes, but they managed to equalise just two minutes later and then Leonardo Lima's 89th-minute penalty sealed their place in the continental showpiece.
"This is the second time we have qualified for the Champions League and this is a great achievement for the club, a great gift from the team to the fans," Zenga said. "I am very happy for the players because they deserved this win.
"They played a great match, thinking as team and this is the most important thing. These players they have shown great performances over the last two years and I am very proud of them."
After their best finish in the Uzbek league – third behind Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor – Lokomotiv have spent the last two months preparing for this game, desperate to make their debut in the group stages of the tournament.
They were an unknown entity for Nasr, as Zenga conceded on the eve of the game, and that probably helped motivate Lokomotiv at the start of the match.
The home goalkeeper Ahmed Shambih looked particularly jittery and was fortunate not to concede in the first 15 minutes, when he made a number of errors.
Gradually, though, Nasr started stringing together some passages of play and Giuseppe Mascara, the Italian striker, came close to breaking the deadlock in the 22nd minute, but shot straight at the Lokomotiv goalkeeper.
Takayuki Morimoto was, however, on target eight minutes later, set up by Lima's precise through ball. The Japanese striker, on a six-month loan at the Maktoum Stadium from Italian club Catania, outsprinted the Lokomotiv defence to the ball and then placed it past the charging Pavel Bugalo.
Lima had a chance to double the lead soon after, but his effort from the edge of the box sailed just wide on 37 minutes. The Brazilian midfielder, wearing the captain's armband, was also busy in defence, stifling several Lokomotiv attacks as Nasr went into the break protecting their one-goal advantage.
They came close to losing that lead 10 minutes into the second half when a defensive lapse allowed Ivan Nagaev a free shot, but the Lokomotiv striker volleyed straight at the Nasr keeper.
Lokomotiv eventually got the equaliser in the 71st minute when substitute Viktor Karpenko curled the ball past Shambih and the ball went in off the upright. Five minutes later, Shambih completely misread the trajectory of Akmal Holmatov's free kick as Lokomotiv took the lead.
The Uzbek advantage, however, did not last longer than two minutes as substitute Habib Fardan, the hero of the UAE's Asian Cup qualifying win over Vietnam on Wednesday, headed in the equaliser to the delight of the home fans.
The home team were then awarded a debatable penalty decision on 88 minutes when Ahmed Ali went down rather easily after what appeared minimal contact from Jabbarov. Lima fired home the spot kick to seal Nasr's place in Group C of the competition, alongside Iranian league champions Sepahan, Emir of Qatar Cup winners Al Gharafa and Saudi league runners-up Al Ahli. Their first group match is February 27 at Sepahan.
Ravshan Mukimov, the Lokomotiv coach, was disappointed with the penalty decision, but congratulated Nasr on the win and said: "We want to wish Nasr all the luck because it is a strong group.
"We would like to have another look at their first and third goals, and we are certainly disappointed. But this is football. You win some and you lose some. You need luck in such matches and we did not have it, conceding a penalty in the 89th minute.
"But this game is not the end of life. We will start preparing for the Uzbek league now and try to win it this time."