ABU DHABI – Iranian side Sepahan set up a meeting with Urawa Reds of Japan in the AFC Champions League final after battling to a goalless draw with Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates at Al Nahyan Stadium on Wednesday evening.
Leading 3-1 from the first leg, the Hazfi Cup holders held on to their advantage with a disciplined defensive performance that made them the first club from their country to reach the final of Asia’s premier club competition.
Al Wahda needed to score at least two goals to rescue the tie after their 3-1 loss in the first leg in Esfahan and they went close to halving the deficit in the opening minute as a low shot from 25 metres by Tawfeeq Abdul Razzaq ball skipped off the ground awkwardly in front of the Sepahan goal and bounced off the shoulder of goalkeeper Abbas Mohammadi.
Abdul Razzaq was then released down the left channel by an excellent through ball from Ismail Matar in the sixth minute but his shot from a tight angle was well covered by Mohammadi
Al Wahda dominated the opening 45 minutes but found themselves restricted to shots from distance by the well drilled Sepahan defence.
However, the Iranian side were nearly caught out on the half-hour mark when Al Wahda were awarded a free kick on the right edge of the box. Matar played a cheeky low shot under the wall that went straight on target but did not deceive the alert Mohammadi, who stopped the ball on the goal line.
Sepahan spent much of the first period in their own half but they nearly opened the scoring against the run of play on 33 minutes.
Mahmoud Karimi gathered the ball on the left flank and shook off a couple of challenges before slipping a magnificent through ball past defender Haidar Alo Ali to an advancing Ehsan Hajysafi, who had only goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri to beat but put his shot wide of the right post.
A mistake by Lamyaghri in stoppage time at the end of the half could have proved costly for the home side. The Moroccan goalkeeper came off his line to gather a high free kick but dropped the ball at the feet of Karimi, who appeared to have the goal at his mercy only to be denied by a great covering tackle by Basheer Saeed before he could get a shot away.
Sepahan began the second half confidently and nearly extended their aggregate lead in the 48th minute when Hadi Jafari’s shot from 25 metres just cleared the crossbar
The pace picked up and on 50 minutes, Lamyaghri bravely came out to deny an advancing Jafari and launched a quick counter attack which saw the ball break eventually to Matar, who launched a low shot from 20 metres that skimmed past the left upright.
Al Wahda should have broken the deadlock in the 73rd minute as Mohamed Al Shehhi slipped the ball through to Matar, who cut the ball from the right byline past Mohammadi. Mahmoud Khamis was waiting in the middle but his hasty attempt went wide of the near post.
With eight minutes remaining, substitute Saeed Al Kathiri went close with a drive from distance that forced an excellent driving save from Mohammadi.
From the resulting corner, the ball fell to Mohamed Othman but his low effort was well covered by Mohammadi.
Sepahan nearly stole a winner three minutes from time as Mohsen Hamidi brought down the ball in the Al Wahda box and dragged the ball back to elude the challenge of Haidar Alo Ali only to fire his shot straight at Lamyaghri.
The demoralised UAE side had clearly given up by that point and nearly conceded deep into injury time as Abdul Wahab Abolheil was allowed to wander completely unmarked into the box only to be denied by another save by Lamyaghri.