Hawar strike denies Sepahan
AFCCL - ESFAHAN, Iraq international Hawar Mulla Mohammed scored a late equaliser as Al Ain kept alive their hopes of a place in the knockout stage of the AFC Champions League with a 1-1 draw against Group D leaders Sepahan at Foolad Shahr Stadium on Wednesday.
Hossein Papi’s 50th minute opener had put the Iranian side ahead but just as the home fans were preparing to celebrate their team’s third win in four games, Mohammed struck 11 minutes from time to give the United Arab Emirates club a share of the points.
Sepahan moved up to seven points and remain two points clear of Al Ain at the top of the group although they could be overtaken by Al Shabab, who play Al Ittihad of Syria later on Wednesday.
The first half was a scrappy with both sides labouring to create chances in front of a capacity crowd in Esfahan.
Saeid Bayat could have opened the scoring for the home side in the 21st minute when he got on the end of a long pass from Mohammad Nori but his diving effort failed to really trouble Al Ain goalkeeper Waleed Salem.
Sepahan goalkeeper Armenak Petrosyan was a spectator during the first half as Al Ain failed to create any notable chances against their hosts, who dominated proceedings but failed to finish with any efficiency.
The match came to life in the second half as Sepahan came out greater attacking intent and they were rewarded just five minutes after the restart when they took the lead through substitute Hossein Papi.
Papi, who came on at the break for the ineffective Hamid Shafiei, received a neat pass from Seyed Mohamed Salehi and fired in a powerful left-foot drive that flew past Waleed Salem from the edge of the area.
Knowing that a defeat would have ended their hopes of reaching the knockout stage for a fifth consecutive year, Al Ain battled back after Papi's goal and increased their pressure on the Sepahan goal.
The inaugural AFC Champions League winners could have levelled the score in the 73rd minute when a cross from the right flank by Gharib Hareb was met by the head of substitute Nassib Ishaq, who rocked the crossbar with his effort.
Al Ain’s equaliser would arrive though six minutes later when Cameroonian striker Frank Ongfiang sent a tempting cross into the box and Hawar Mulla Mohammed outjumped his marker to bury a powerful header past Petrosyan into the lower left corner of the Sepahan net.
The final 10 minutes proved to be entertaining as both sides poured forward in an attempt to take the three points.
Al Ain nearly grabbed the winner in the 84th minute as Ongfiang fired a powerful drive that was turned out by Petrosyan to a corner.
Sepahan responded a minute later when Mohammed Nori crossed from the left flank for Sayed Mohamed Salehi, who failed to connect with the ball, allowing Waleed Salem to clear the danger.
Nori went close himself in the final minute of the game when he received the ball with his back to goal and turned to fire a powerful drive that was stopped at full stretch by Salem.
Bonacic angered by poor display
AFCCL - ESFAHAN, Sepahan coach Luka Bonacic questioned the professionalism of his players on Wednesday after they allowed a late lead to slip in their 1-1 draw with Al Ain in a Group D clash.
Iraq international Hawar Mulla Mohammed scored 11 minutes from time to cancel out Hossein Papi’s 50th minute opener, preventing Sepahan from extending their lead in a tight group.
While accepting that his players may have been tired after their recent hard-fought win against Iran Pro League leaders Esteghalal, Bonacic felt that they could have done more to raise their game.
“Our players were exhausted after the win against Esteghlal and it seemed that they didn’t have enough energy to do what I told them to do before the match,” said the Croatian.
“It's clear that I couldn’t replace too many of my players so we had to go into this game with the same tired players.
“But I personally think that the significant problem lies in the way that the Iranian players practice as they don’t often behave very professionally. For instance, they rarely turn up on time for routine training sessions and are keen to leave the session earlier than scheduled.
“Thirty percent of the players in my own squad don’t take on the burden I put on their shoulders but I am unable to punish them for that.”
While Sepahan remain at the top of Group D, Bonacic felt that point dropped at home could end up being costly for his team.
"We have gained seven points so far and that's certainly not bad after four games, but we may still be unable to advance to the knockout stage,” said Bonacic.
“I think it is crucial to do well in our home games when we are playing in front of our fans.
“After Al Ain equalised, we had many chances to take the lead for the second time, but we failed, as a result of our poor performance in attack.”
Al Ain remain third in the group, two points behind Sepahan and Al Shabab, with coach Walter Zenga feeling that his team could have done better in Esfahan.
"I'm not obviously too pleased with our result here since we're returning home with only a single point.
“During the first half, we weren’t brave enough to go on the offensive away from home but after the resumption we thought of nothing but attack.
“I don’t think we have much chance of progressing past the group stage but we will continue to work hard to make the best of our small chance.”