Former champions Al Ain made virtually sure of a place in the final of the Asian Champions League with a 6-0 thrashing of China's Shenzhen Jianlibao in the first leg of their semi-final in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday. The star of the show was Nigerian striker Nwoha Onyekachi, who struck a sweet hat-trick, with Subait Khater, executing two beautiful free kicks, not far behind. Shehab Ahmed scored their fourth goal on 28 minutes with Shenzhen already out for the count after a blistering opening half hour.
With the news, that another former champion and west Asian side, Al Ittihad, had defeated Busan I'Park 5-0 in the other semi-final, filtering through the 11,000 spectators gathered at Al Ain's Tahnon Bin Mohammed Stadium, the home side tore into their opponents from the opening whistle.
Having only narrowly navigated their way past quarter-final opponents' Pas and Al Ahli, it looked to all of Asia that this semi-final would be a tight affair. Shenzhen coach Guo Ruilong had invested much energy in preparing a defensive line ahead of the tie, but within 28 minutes his team were put mercilessly to the sword by the nine-times UAE champions.
"We had expected Shenzhen would employ a defensive game plan and we did very well in breaching their rearguard," said Al Ain's Czech coach Milan Macala. "With 9 men always behind the ball, they allowed us to pin them to their own third and produce a lot of chances."
Al Ain's first shot came after only two minutes as the Nigerian striker Nwoha Onyekachi forced Shenzhen custodian Li Leilei into an early save. With the Chinese reigning champions still finding their feet in the Emirati desert, the hosts took the lead through their set-piece specialist Subait Khater. The UAE reigning Player of the Year showed a glimpse of his genius as he fired a rocket into the top-right corner to score his fifth goal in the tournament ('4).
The opener should have sounded a warning for the nervy-looking back line shorn of their influential international defender Li Weifeng, but Ruilong's men seemed to be entirely caught out as they quickly conceded their second goal. Shehab Ahmed failed to beat his man but the clearance fell at the feet of Abdulla Ali, whose cross into the area was met perfectly by the impressive Onyekachi ('10).
No back up
Despite struggling this year on the domestic stage, Shenzhen seemed to lack a plan on how to respond to going two goals down. With the defence looking increasingly fragile and their solitary striker Li Yi closely marked, the China's champions were unable to find any rhythm to their game. Yang Chen's 18th-minute long-range effort was their only shot in the first half.
Seeing their opponents their for the taking, Milan Macala's men went for the kill. They soon had their third when Onyekachi latched onto an Abdulla Ali cross from the right to slot home ('21). And only seven minutes later, it was 4-0 as Ahmed lobbed smartly over the onrushing Li Leilei into an empty goal ('28).
Ruilong rearranged his troops at half-time and Shenzhen came out with a more positive approach. In their best spell of pressure around the hour mark, Lu Bofei had long-range efforts flash wide of Mutaz Abdulla's goal before Zhou Ting's well taken free kick cleared the Al Ain wall but not Mutaz, who dived to his left to save.
However with Shenzhen desperately searching for something to take back home, Onyekachi took advantage of the holes at the back to complete his hat-trick with a superb individual goal ('77). Subait Khater added a sixth defeating the despondent Li Leilei with another stunning free kick ('81).
"The result proved Al Ain are a cut above us as," Guilong admitted. "Despite the heavy loss, I am satisfied with my players as they never gave up and continued to work hard. We've gained precious experience and learned some lessons."
The second leg will be played in China on 12 October but Macala is not counting his chickens just yet: "The 6-0 win is a giant step towards the final but we have to make it clear we still need to be careful in the next game."