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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Al Ain booked their place in the group stages of the Asian Champions League with a narrow 1-0 victory against Bunyodkor on Tuesday night.
The Garden City club, champions in 2003 and finalists four years ago, were made to work by the Uzbekistan side at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, but prevailed in the play-off thanks to Saeed Juma’s 78th-minute strike.
Al Ain now take their place in Group D alongside Al Nassr and Al Sadd – champions of Saudi and Qatar, respectively – and Iran’s Sepahan. The UAE side, who went into the match third in the Arabian Gulf League, begin their campaign at home to Sepahan on February 11.
“It was a very good performance from the team,” Pedro Emanuel, the Al Ain manager, said. “I asked the team to have balance, but most importantly focus. During the 90 minutes the players carried out the plan well and won the game.
"We have two very good chances in the first half. When we don’t score and it’s 0-0, anything can happen.
“In the end, we make a complete game. We won, we didn't concede goals and we deserve to be on the group stage. Congratulations to all the group, to the club, because Al Ain is a big club that deserves to be every time in the Champions League."
It could have been a much more straightforward evening for the hosts. As Emanuel alluded to, they should have twice taken the lead in the first half, had Kodjo Laba grabbed either of the presentable chances that came his way.
On 11 minutes, the Togo striker exchanged a neat one-two with Omar Yaisien, but his shot was drilled straight at Abdumavlon Abdujalilov in the Bunyodkor goal.
Lada had another opportunity just after the half hour. This time, Bandar Al Ahbabi’s floated cross arrived in the perfect position, only for Laba to somehow head over the bar. Unmarked and right in the centre of the goal, he was seven yards out. Emanuel could barely believe it.
In between, Bunyodkor had what appeared a decent shout for a penalty. Ahmed Barman seemed to kick out twice at Jasur Jaloliddinov as he reacted first to a knockdown in the home side’s area, but the referee waved away the Uzbeks’ vociferous protests.
Al Ain returned from half-time to a much better tempo. First, substitute Jamal Marouf glanced inches wide a Salem Abdulla cross from the left, before Tsukasa Shiotani tested Abdujalilov with a mishit volley. From the resultant corner, captain Ismail Ahmed powered his header off target.
Then came Al Ain’s reprieve. With 12 minutes remaining, right-back Juma strode forward, received a return pass back from Mohammed Abdulrahman and stroked the ball inside the far post. The relief palpable inside the ground, the youngster celebrating with a somersault.
Al Ain were still made to sweat, though. Not long before the end, Khumoyun Murtazoev headed over when well placed. Chance spurned, he threw his head into his hands.
As Bunyodkor wondered how they had not drawn level, Laba raced onto Al Ahbabi’s brilliant curled pass but, having taken a good touch, dragged his half-volley too close to Abdujalilov. In injury-time, Abdulrahman flashed an effort just wide.
However, it mattered little. Victory secured, the UAE’s only continental champions will now contest the groups.
“It’s very important,” Emanuel said. “Whoever plays in Al Ain needs to know Al Ain is a big club and every time is going to fight to win the competition they are in.
"Not only because they are a big club, but because of the history of Al Ain, and this is going to be our work: to fight every game for the three points and put Al Ain in the place it deserves. We know very well what we want and the way we have to make it.”
Updated: January 28, 2020 10:22 PM
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