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Asian Champions League: Al Ain goalkeeper relieved over form in Al Hilal win

The veteran Khaled Eisa made at least six crucial saves in denying Al Hilal a comeback victory in the semi-final's aggregate analysis
24 Apr 2024 22:09

Kuumar Shyam (Abu Dhabi)

Al Ain managed to sweat it past Al Hilal in the rivals’ den of Riyadh to reach the finals of the Asian Champions League (ACL) on Tuesday night. Al Ain had a couple of goals disallowed in a bitterly-fought encounter and lost 2-1 on the night in the second leg but a 4-2 win in the first leg in Al Ain was enough for them to go through.

A Ruben Neves’ penalty was negated quickly by Al Ain’s Brazilian defender Erik, but an opportunistic strike from Salem Al Dawsari early in the second half put the Saudi club in front for most of the match. There were two goals disallowed for Al Ain and one for Al Hilal, while the profligate hosts also met with few attempts hitting the goal upright.

That did not take anything away from a man-of-the-match performance by Al Ain goalkeeper Khaled Eisa as the 2003 inaugural winners of the tournament made a third appearance in the final, their first since 2016. It required the experienced custodian to cut down pace to his team’s advantage as Al Ain were hustled into playing at Al Hilal’s brisk pace, as the hosts pressed for an equaliser for nearly an hour. 

Eisa expressed happiness after conceding he had hit a dark patch in the past few years. "To be honest, I rediscovered my form in the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar [held in January]. I had a bad period before that but I am back at my best now.
"I am glad to be playing well again, especially as we are now at the important stage of the season and I thank the confidence of the coach and the club management in me," said the 34-year-old custodian.

Al Ain certainly needed him at his best at the Kingdom Arena as two-time ACL champions Al Hilal were relentless in their bid to erase the first-leg deficit.

Eisa made six crucial saves as Al Ain held on to make the final, with the Emirati side aiming to lift the title for the second time. "We played against a world class team and this match was even more difficult than the first game,” Eisa said. "The pressure was higher – mentally and physically – and I am so proud that we hung on."

For head coach Hernan Crespo, it was a case of job done after the Argentine had suffered semi-final disappointment with former club Al Duhail SC of Qatar at Al Hilal's hands in the 2022 edition.

"I thank everyone in Al Ain club, and I am happy to be the coach of this great team. We respect ourselves and respect our opponents who are the leading club in Saudi Arabia and in this tournament. I am very proud of my players for performing their best in a packed away stadium," said Crespo.

While Al Ain can now focus on winning the final edition of the Asian Champions League in its current format after being the inaugural winners in 2003, Al Hilal's bid for a fifth Asian title ended at the semi-final stage.

The Saudi club manager Jorge Jesus conceded his side had come up short over both legs. "What we did in both legs was not enough to reach the final. Although we played a great second half today and we created several chances, we didn't use them."
“It is disappointing but we have to move on as we still have titles to compete for. The first is the league title and then the King's Cup.

"We have lost only once in 45 matches and we should not forget this. I told the players in the dressing room to keep their heads high as they were the better side but were not lucky."

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