The destination of the 2015 AFC Champions’ League trophy remains in the balance after Guangzhou Evergrande played out a goalless draw with Al-Ahli in the first leg of the final in Dubai. The visitors looked most likely to break the stalemate, but Zheng Zhi’s dipping first half volley was kept out by a fine Ahmed Mahmoud save and Huang Bowen was denied by the underside of the crossbar in the opening minute of the second period.
ACL Final First Leg
Guangzhou Evergrande 0
Coming into the game, Evergrande were big favourites to take their second continental crown in three years against opponents who had never previously gotten past the group stages of the competition. However, the side that finished just seventh in the 2014-15 UAE Arabian Gulf League is littered with internationals from a resurgent United Arab Emirates national team and features recent big name Brazilian signings Lima and Everton Ribeiro.
The Dubai based club also came in to the game on the back of an eighteen game unbeaten streak in all competitions which includes a dramatic 3-2 second leg semi-final victory over Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia that was won with a 95th minute goal from South Korean midfielder Kwon Kyung-won. For their part, Evergrande secured a fifth consecutive Chinese Super League title with a win away to Beijing Guo’an last weekend, but there have been fears that a tough run of games may have fatigued the Cantonese side.
Those worries looked unfounded in the first half of this game, as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men were very much on top in the opening 45 minutes. Paulinho went close with two long range efforts in the first 20 minutes, but the first flew just over the bar and the second was hooked wide of Mahmoud’s right-hand post.
Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi was far more accurate when he got to shoot from a similar distance in the 26th minute. The 35-year-old’s looped volley was reminiscent of the one he scored for China in a friendly against New Zealand last year, but Mahmoud was equal to the veteran’s effort and was able to tip it wide at full stretch.
The visitors were on top, but Al-Ahli almost took the lead with a sucker punch in the 34th minute thanks to the pace of winger Ismael Al Hammadi. The 27-year-old was set loose on a counterattack and was able to create enough space for a shot while running at Zhang Linpeng. The UAE international’s effort wasn’t good enough to beat Zeng Cheng in Evergrande goal, but it proved that the Chinese side weren’t going to have everything their own way.
After failing to find a breakthrough in the first half, Evergrande almost found the net less than a minute into the second when Huang Bowen turned and shot in the Al-Ahli penalty area. The midfielder’s strike had Mahmoud beaten, but it cannoned against the bottom of the crossbar and bounced back down on the wrong side of the goal line from the Chinese point of view.
After being bested for much of the opening 45 minute, Al-Ahli came back into the game after Huang’s effort. But the Dubai based club were unable to create any real opportunities to excite the capacity crowd of 9,480 at the diminutive Rashed Stadium.
A few crosses caused Evergrande problems, but the best chance of the second half fell to the tiring visitors when Huang Bowen produced produced a fine cross for substitute Yu Hanchao. The ball was on a plate for the Evergrande winger but, while his close range effort was firmly struck, it was too close to Mahmoud who was able to get down low and keep it out.
That was it for big chances as the two other major second half talking point happened a long way from the goalmouth. In the 56th minute, Evergrande’s Ricardo Goulart was carted off with a serious looking injury and Al-Ahli’s Abdulaziz Haikal was shown a straight red card after a tussle with Gao Lin in the game’s dying moments.
Goulart turned his ankle after a strong, but fair challenge from Majed Hassan and the Brazilian attacker was unable to continue. After the match, Scolari conceded that “it might be difficult for (Goulart) to play in the second leg” and it will be a major blow if this season’s AFC Champions’ League top scorer is unfit for the return leg in two weeks time.
One player who will definitely be absent from that fixture, though, is Haikal who will be suspended following his 86th minute dismissal. The UAE international right back certainly appeared to grab at Gao off the ball, but the Evergrande forward maximised the chance to get an opponent sent off by going to ground while clutching his face in an exaggerated manner.
By that point, however, the game already seemed destined to end in a stalemate and Evergrande’s numerical advantage made little difference as the closing minutes ticked away. Given that the return leg will be held in Guangzhou in two weeks time, Evergrande will certainly be the happier of the two teams, but they may still come to lament their failure to snag the away goal their overall performance just about deserved.