Al Shabab, Zob Ahan seize narrow leads

The first legs of the AFC Champions League semi-finals turned out to be very close-run affairs, with Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab and Iran’s Zob Ahan seizing narrow leads against Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma and fellow Saudis Al Hilal. 

For much of the evening In Riyadh, it looked as if Al Shabab would suffer a home defeat at the hands of Seongnam, but two late goals in the space of six minutes sees them heading into the away leg 4-3 ahead. The South Korean outfit will still fancy their chances of progressing at home in two weeks' time, though, especially if they can reproduce the superb attacking form shown in the Saudi capital. 

In the Iranian city of Esfahan, meanwhile, striker Ghasem Hadadifar scored the only goal of the game to give Zob Ahan a narrow win in their home leg against Al Hilal. The visitors can count themselves unlucky to be behind in the tie after missing a first-half penalty, but still go into the second leg with everything to play for. 

A see-sawing encounter
Al Shabab 4-3 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, Tuesday 5 October 2010, King Fahd International Stadium 

In what was truly pulsating game, Al Shabab had to come from behind three times before finally netting the winner with just a minute to go. Colombian Mauricio Molina put the visitors ahead with powerful strike from outside the box after only four minutes, only for Al Shabab to level the scores on the quarter-hour mark courtesy of Uruguayan Juan Manuel Olivera. Seongnam had their noses in front again 11 minutes later after Jo Jae-Chol finished off a slick counter-attacking move. 

After the interval Nasser Al Shamrani brought the home side level again with a spectacular individual effort on 56 minutes. Molina then restored the visitors' lead with his second of the game on 69 minutes, leaving the hosts to press hard for an equaliser as the clock ticked down. They were finally rewarded seven minutes from time, when Olivera scored his second to make it 3-3, and six minutes later substitute Faisal Al Sultan latched on to an Abdoh Autef pass to give his side a slim lead. 

A tight affair
Zob Ahan 1-0 Al Hilal, Wednesday 6 October 2010, Foolad Shahr Stadium 

Despite producing just a solitary goal between them, Zob Ahan and Al Hilal served up plenty of excitement in Esfahan. The hosts looked the more dangerous in the early exchanges with Brazilian Igor Castro shooting narrowly wide after an excellent move on 21 minutes. Al Hilal then had a golden opportunity to take the lead five minutes before the break after a superb solo run by Yasser Al Qahtani earned the visitors a penalty. Swedish international midfielder Christian Wilhelmsson steeped up to take the kick but fired his weak effort straight at keeper Shahab Gordan. 

Al Hilal suffered a setback early in the second half when Al Qahtani limped off, and things got worse for the Saudi outfit minutes later when Ghasem Hadadifar hit a low free-kick into the bottom left-hand corner that gave Hassan Al Otaibi no chance. Al Hilal pressed hard for an equaliser in the final minutes, but the hosts stood firm to deny them an away goal to take into the return leg in Riyadh on 20 October.      

Key player
Versatile Al Shabab midfielder Abdoh Autef had it all to do when he came off the bench a minute after Seongam’s third goal on Tuesday evening. However, the 26-year-old Saudi international made a huge impact, first setting up his side’s third with a pinpoint cross for Uruguayan Juan Manuel Olivera, then making a killer pass for fellow substitute Faisal Al Sultan to grab the winner in the final minute. 

The stat
8 - The number of consecutive home games Zob Ahan have now gone unbeaten in the AFC Champions League. One more undefeated would see them match the record of Syrian outfit Al Karama, whose nine-match sequence ran from the group stage of the 2006 edition to their quarter-finals the following year at the hands of Seongnam. 

The quote
“Both teams performed very well and shared possession, which made for a high-scoring game. Our aim was to score a couple of away goals and, though we managed that, the tide turned in Al Shabab’s favour near the end. To ensure we go through in the second leg, we’ll deploy a plan of attack that exploits Al Shabab’s weaknesses, which we know very well,” Shin Tae-Yong, Seongnam coach. 

AFC Champions League semi-final, first-leg results
5 October
Al Shabab 4-3 Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 

6 October
Zob Ahan 1-0 Al Hilal