Al Nasr 0
Man of the match: Ahmed Shambieh (Al Nasr)
Finally, at the third time of asking, Al Nasr can look forward to a run at the Asian Champions League knockout stages.
The Dubai club have never really been close before, finishing a distance third and rock bottom in their respective groups in two previous appearances, but that changed Wednesday night at the Bunyodkor Stadium in Tashkent.
There, Nasr eked out a 0-0 draw against Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv, grasping the solitary point required to confirm a runner-up finish behind their unbeaten opponents in Group A.
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A last-16 clash with Iran’s Tractor Sazi awaits, with the first leg to come in Dubai on May 17, when Nasr can dream of emulating Al Ahli’s history-making jaunt of last year.
Just like Ahli 12 months ago, Nasr have laid their group ghosts to rest; for them, it is third time lucky, three is their magic number.
They will feel fortunate that the make-up of the pool dictated a draw would work best for both Nasr and Lokomotiv, the resolute Uzbeks who knew a share of the spoils would guarantee them top spot.
The first half played out as such, with little of note taking place. Its first real effort did not arrive until the 34th minute, when Lokomotiv’s Sanjar Shaakhmedov unleashed a rasping shot, speculative but forceful, from 30 yards. It sent Ahmed Shambieh scampering across his goal, but the Nasr goalkeeper thrust up his right arm to palm away the ball.
At the other end, the visitors never troubled, with Jires Kembo Ekoko shooting high into the stands shortly after half time. The Frenchman had scored from similar range in the initial fixture between the two teams two weeks ago, a match that ended 1-1, but here his radar was off.
Moments later, Shaakhmedov forced another, smarter save from Shambieh. The Nasr stopper got down well to the long-range effort, repelling the danger to keep the home side at bay. Almost from that juncture, Nasr quelled any potential Lokomotiv threat.
Even as Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, third in Group A, were winning the other encounter and therefore making necessary the draw, Nasr kept their cool, stuck to their task, let nothing derail them.
Ivan Jovanovic’s men were nowhere near their best, but that did not matter: this was a professional job, as the UAE side achieved exactly what they set out to do. It stretched their unbeaten run in the competition to five games – they have not lost since the opening match day – an impressive stat given they had tasted defeat in 10 of the 13 Champions League fixtures they had played before this year’s edition.
They have come far under Jovanovic’s expert tutelage.
They will seek to go even further now, to keep what appears an impossible dream within their sights.
Qualifying represents a hugely impressive feat by Nasr, one that was not expected when the groups began way back in February. But they have risen to the challenge, much like they did in Tashkent on Wednesday night. A draw against Lokomotiv and a place in the knockout stages at last. Full steam ahead.
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