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Group A: Istiklol, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai share spoils in AFC Champions League opener

Riyadh: Tajikistan’s FC Istiklol announced their AFC Champions League arrival by battling their way to a scoreless draw against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai FC at King Fahd International Stadium on Thursday.

Appearing in the group stage of Asia’s premier club competition for the first time, Istiklol defied expectations to keep Mahdi Ali’s talented attacking line-up at bay in their opening Group A encounter.

In addition to making Istiklol the first team from Tajikistan to win an AFC Champions League point, the result keeps Group A’s teams on even keel after Al Hilal and AGMK drew 2-2 in Thursday’s other clash.

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Shabab Al Ahli were the more experienced side at this level, and they looked the part in the early stages, racking up more than 70 per cent of the possession and having eight unanswered shots at goal in the first half, albeit without forcing a single save.

That was down in no small part to the determination of the Istiklol defensive unit led by Ukrainian duo Oleksii Larin and Andrii Mischenko, with a string of blocked shots ensuring no questions were directly asked of goalkeeper Rustam Yatimov before half-time, which arrived with the score still at 0-0.

The Istiklol shot-stopper was called upon when he batted away a blistering 35-yard free-kick from Hamdam Al Kamali in the 53rd minute, but – perhaps buoyed by the results achieved by fellow debutants Goa and Al Wehdat on Wednesday - the Tajik side largely looked to be growing in comfort as the minutes began to tick away.

Their confidence grew with the ball as well as without, and they carved out their best chance of the match in the 68th minute, with only a fine near post stop from Shabab Al Ahli goalkeeper Majed Naser preventing Huseyin Dogan from becoming Istiklol’s first ever AFC Champions League goal scorer, having been played in by Alisher Dzhalilov’s pass.

But Dogan’s chance was the exception rather than the norm, and the weight of opportunities remained with Shabab Al Ahli into the latter stages, with substitute Ahmed Al Hashmi missing a header he perhaps ought to have scored after an excellent Mohammed Jumaa cross created one of the last clear cut opportunities with just over 10 minutes remaining.

One point acquired, Istiklol will face fellow debutants AGMK on Sunday, while Shabab Al Ahli will cross paths with Riyadh heavyweights Al Hilal.

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