Al Ahli, Guangzhou share spoils
Hosts Al Ahli and Guangzhou Evergrande played out a goalless draw in Saturday's 2015 AFC Champions League final first leg, a result which leaves the title-race well in the balance.
The precious away point provides Luiz Felipe Scolari's visiting side with a slender advantage heading into the return leg at home in a fortnight's time.
Guangzhou proved the better side, dominating the proceedings and carving out more opportunities than the hosts. They came close on more than one occasion, including rattling the crossbar in the second half. The hosts, for their part, defended gallantly throughout to keep the 2013 winners at bay as they maintained their undefeated record at home.
"We produced a couple of fine chances and we should have at least converted one of these," Guangzhou captain Zheng Zhi said post match. "But we hadn't played a team from West Asia for a long time and this game was quite physical and hard. It was a result acceptable for us. We are confident of winning at home in the next leg."
It proved to be a cautious start in what was the two sides' first-ever meeting. After trading early exchanges, hosts Al Ahli pressed forward but it was the visiting Guangzhou who had the first sight of goal, Paulinho pulling a shot just over the crossbar.
The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder should have opened the scoring for Guangzhou when he latched onto Elkeson's smart back-pass only to flash a low shot just wide of the post. Luiz Felipe Scolari's charges continued to assert their authority on the proceedings and they carved out a series of chances in quick succession midway through the first half. Captain Zheng Zhi saw his powerful drive just tipped over before Elkeson's bicycle-kick caused havoc in the area.
Having weathered the visitors' storm, Al Ahli hit back and their best opportunity came when a through ball saw Lima played in facing goalkeeper Zeng Cheng on a one-one. However, the slim Guangzhou custodian was shrewd enough to get off his line to snuff out the danger.
With the clock ticking towards the break, Guangzhou upped the tempo as they sought the opener. Midfielder Zheng Long twisted past two defenders but failed to pull his shot on target. Ricardo Goulart then grazed the near post with a low shot as the first half ended goalless.
Guangzhou picked up where they had left after the restart and they nearly broke the deadlock when Huang Bowen hit the outside of the crossbar. The hosts did whatever they could to keep the rivals at bay but Guangzhou again came close when Yu Hanchao, in for injured Goulart, forced the hosts' goalkeeper Ahmed Mahmoud into a fine save.
Both sides showed anxiety after failing to find the back of the net and the remainder of the game became a scrappy affair. Abdulaziz Haikal was dismissed after fouling Gao Lin but with their legs beginning to tire, Guangzhou could hardly produce a gilt-edged opportunity despite their numerical advantage.