AFC – TASHKENT, Marat Bikmaev might have been peripheral throughout the game between Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv and Islamic Republic of Iran’s side Esteghlal, but until three minutes from time it looked like the forward’s clinical strike would be enough to secure all three points for Andriy Miklyaev’s team.
That Esteghlal picked up a point through Kaveh Razaei’s late equaliser, however, was testament to the refusal of Alireza Mansourian’s team to settle for a defeat when all three points looked to be slipping away.
While the point could end up being crucial for both teams in their quest for a place in the Round of 16, the draw allowed Esteghlal to remain at the summit of Group A, with Lokomotiv three points adrift with two matches remaining.
Clincal Bikmaev makes the difference
Bikmaev’s involvement was minimal throughout much of the game, but when the former Alania Vladikavkaz striker was called upon to deliver he did so with aplomb.
His 13th minute goal – when he latched onto Jaloliddin Masharipov’s ball over the static Esteghlal defence before slotting his shot under Mehdi Rahmati – looked set to haul themselves back into contention for a place in the knockout phase of this year’s competition.
It was one of only three attempts at goal for the underworked forward who had just 28 touches throughout the 90 minutes, but when he was called upon to do a job, the 31-year-old was effective.
Lokomotiv dominant down the left
While Lokomotiv took the lead after Bikmaev latched onto Masharipov’s ball over the top of the Esteghlal defence, it seemed the most likely route for success for the home side would come down the left flank.
It was there that Lokomotiv gained the upper hand in the earliest exchanges, with the combinations between Sardor Mirzayev, Oleg Zoteev and Masharipov causing problems for Esteghlal’s right back, Vouria Ghafouri in particular.
Time and again the Uzbek side found time and space on that side of the pitch, but too often the delivery was not decisive enough to make a difference and Esteghlal were never severely tested.
Esteghlal’s persistence pays off
As the Iranians grew increasingly determined to claw themselves level, so the pressure they exerted on the Lokomotiv goal grew in the second-half, and in particular throughout the last 15 minutes.
By the 87th minute that sustained intensity had paid off, with Kaveh Rezaei sliding the ball home from a tight angle to give the Iranians the equaliser their dominance of the second half deserved.
Indeed, with the game in injury time Esteghlal could have taken all three points – an outcome that would have been harsh on Lokomotiv – when Rezaei’s attempt from the left clattered against the crossbar.
But with the ball bouncing to safety, Lokomotiv hung on for a deserved point that ensures both teams retain their hopes of progressing to the next round of the competition.