Tehran: Recently-crowned Iranian champions Esteghlal secured a spot in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League for the first time after they completed a 4-2 aggregate victory over Al Shabab Al Arabi of the United Arab Emirates with a goalless draw at the Azadi Stadium on Wednesday.
The verve that the Tehran giants had shown in Dubai last week when they came from a goal down to beat Al Shabab 4-2, was largely absent in a dour and physical contest littered with fouls and yellow cards.
The closest that ether side came to breaking the deadlock was an effort just before half-time by Al Shabab’s Luiz Henrique that he smashed against the crossbar.
“This year, we have struggled past many difficulties but at the end of the day we have been rewarded what we deserved,” said Esteghlal coach, Amir Ghalenoei.
“We won the league title in Iran, moved past giant teams including Al Ain and Al Hilal and finally joined the last eight in the continental competition.
“If we are aiming to keep our good rhythm in the Champions League, we need to sign six or seven new players. One of the weaknesses that I have spotted in our playing style is that the whole team is too much dependent on forward movements from Mojtaba Jabbari.
“If he steps back a little bit, you will see the whole team won't move the ball smoothly anymore and that is what we need to amend in future."
Having been beaten 4-2 at home by Esteghlal in the first leg, the onus was on Al Shabab to get goals but both sides struggled to create clear cut chances throughout the match.
The home side’s best chance to break the deadlock early on came in the 10th minute when Khosro Heidari’s cross from the left found Siavash Akbarpour whose firm header forced goalkeeper Salem Abdulla into a diving save.
Al Shabab needed to score at least three goals to salvage the tie but the closest they came to getting a goal was an effort just a minute before the break by Luiz Henrique who brought down a long pass on the left of the Esteghlal box and launched a right-footed drive that flew past goalkeeper Mahdi Rahmati but came back off the crossbar.
Genuine chances continued to be at a premium in the second half with the hosts controlling much of the possession but creating little in front of goal.
Javad Nekounam should have done better when he headed over in the 57th minute and he then saw his free-kick from the left edge of the Al Shabab box fly high and wide.
With the tie all but settled, the match took a nasty edge in the closing minutes with crunching tackles from both sides resulting in a rash of yellow cards.
The home side thought that they had finally made the breakthrough with 15 minutes left when Hanif Omranzadeh headed into the Al Shabab net only to see his effort disallowed as he was deemed to have been in an offside position when he .
Hassan Ibrahim had one final chance to give Al Shabab a late consolation goal but he sent his late header wide as the match ended goalless.
“Both teams made efforts to put in a good performance. Esteghlal were the better side in the first period, but I guess we should have been awarded two penalties before the break,” said Al Shabab Al Arabi coach, Marcos Paqueta, who can now focus on his team’s remaining matches of their domestic campaign.
“I had to change two players late in the game to keep them fit for our upcoming match back home, which are important for us.
“And to be frank, I was realistic enough not to be thinking of hammering mighty Esteghlal 3-0 on their home soil. So I just asked the players to play their normal game, enjoy the match and refrain from taking it too seriously which could have left us with injuries.”