Abu Dhabi: Reduced to 10-men in the 66th minute, Al Ain ended up splitting points with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal after playing out a goalless draw in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals first leg encounter at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on Monday.
Though it is even stevens, how much this result would hurt the progress of the purple brigade will be known when they play their return leg in Riyadh on September 12.
With the way the visitors went about their business in the absence of two of their key players — Nawaf Al Abed and Uruguayan Nicolas Milesi — it is clear Al Ain have their task cut out in the return leg.
It was a 7.50pm start but the conditions inside the stadium were still energy-sapping as the barometer remained around the 39 degree mark. However, with the semi-final spot at stake, both teams played out of their skin.
As expected, it was an action-packed encounter right from the word go and the Abdul Rahman brothers — Omar and Mohammed — got the packed house involved straight away in the first minute. Omar triggered the move and Mohammed followed it up with a right-footed effort which missed the far post by inches.
The visitors were also threatening whenever they had their share of the ball. In the 13th minute, Omar Kharbin managed to put the ball in the back of the goal on a release from Brazilian Carlos Eduardo, only to see the offside flag go up.
Al Ain also saw an effort from Douglas denied in the 25th minute after the Brazilian’s full stretched effort off a free-kick from Omar Abdul Rahman but was caught offside.
In the 38th minute, a left-footed effort from Omar Abdul Rahman was saved at the bottom left corner by Al Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al Muaiouf.
Then before going into the break, a Douglas back header found Al Ain’s new Swedish recruit Marcus Berg lurking at the top of the box, but the latter’s shot was blocked by a defender.
After the change of ends, Al Ain almost scored through a free-kick from skipper Omar Abdul Rahman. An ace midfielder went from the top corner of the goal but an alert Al Muaiouf leaped high enough to tip it over the framework.
Al Ain received a huge setback in the 66th minute after Mohanad Salem was given marching orders after he pocketed his second yellow card for a needless tackle on Salman Al Faraj. Salem was booked earlier for a similar offence on Kharbin moments before the break.
Thereafter the approach from the hosts had to be cautious but the brilliance of Omar Abdul Rahman still helped them script a few mesmerising moves; the closest being in the 85th minute, when his cross was followed with a well-directed header from Douglas only to see it being plucked from the air by Al Muaiouf.
In the end, Al Ain custodian Khalid Eisa saved the day for the hosts by being rock solid under the bar and weathering a couple of close attempts in the dying minutes of the match.