DOHA: An injury-time equalizer denied Al Ahli an AFC Champions League victory in Doha Monday (Tuesday in Manila) as the Saudi side became the first from a boycotting nation to play in Qatar since the beginning of the Gulf crisis.
On a politically charged night in the Qatari capital, the Saudis were only able to draw 1-1 with Wesley Sneijder’s Al Gharafa.
Al Ahli took the lead through a Aqeel Balghaith header in the 62nd minute, and looked good to extend their 100 per cent start to the group stage, having won their first two games.
But a 91st-minute scrambled goal from Gharafa defender Rubert Quijada ensured a diplomatic draw.
Monday’s game had strong political overtones, taking place on the nine-month anniversary of an ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Gulf.
On June 5 last year a group of Saudi-led countries cut all ties with World Cup 2022 host Qatar over its alleged support for Islamist extremists and proximity to Shiite Iran—charges Doha denies.
Saudi Arabian, and UAE, federations had tried to get the Champions League group matches against Qatari sides played on neutral territory, but this request was turned down by the AFC.
Before the game, Qatari fans sang the national anthem and there were also more than 30 fans of the Saudi side, one of the most popular teams in the region, in the stadium.
Sergei Rebrov, Al Ahli coach, said there was no extra pressure because of the politics.
“We are happy with the result. I felt no pressure, it doesn’t matter which country you are from, today was a good friendly match.”
Bulent Uygun, Gharafa’s coach, said it was a “good result” for his team, who have four points from their first three games.
Former champions upset
Elsewhere, former AFC champions Al Sadd of Qatar were upset by Uzbekistan’s Nasaf while the UAE’s Al Wasl suffered their third straight defeat in the competition which resumed after a two-week break.
Al Sadd, who won the continental tournament in 2011, fell 1-0 away at the Markaziy Stadium in the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, while Iran’s Persepolis dominated Al Wasl for a 2-0 victory at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
Monday’s Group C results leave Al Sadd, Nasaf and Persepolis level on six points, while Al Wasl languish at the bottom having failed to open their account from three matches.
Al Sadd, whose Qatar Stars League title chances were severely dented last week when they were beaten 4-3 by leaders Al Duhail, failed to get their act together against Nasaf who dominated the game and created several scoring chances.
With the injured Xavi not playing the match, the Qatar giants were clearly short on inspiration and could have leaked more goals but for the efforts of their defenders and goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb.
Al-Sheeb, however, couldn’t deny the Uzbeks in the 62nd minute when Azizjon Gainev scored from the penalty spot after Bobir Abdixolikov was fouled by Salem al-Hajri.
Ruzikul Berdiev’s men then held on to their slender lead for their second win in the competition.
Meanwhile in Tehran, Farshad Ahmadzadeh and Ali Alipour were on target in a span of five minutes as Persepolis saw off Al Wasl.
Ahmadzadeh scored with a volley in the 36th minute when a long throw-in by Hossein Mahini was headed into his path by captain Jalal Hosseini and Alipour consolidated in the 41st from the spot after he was felled while trying to get around Al Wasl goalkeeper Yousif Abdulla.
Australian midfielder Anthony Caceres came close to reducing the deficit for Al Wasl but his free kick was tipped away for a corner by Alireza Beiranvand.