Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao took a tentative step towards their second AFC Champions League title in three years by playing out a tense 0-0 draw with Al Ahli in the first leg of the final.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team were unable to fashion victory at Rishad Stadium, with visiting midfielder Huang Bowen’s attempt that cannoned back off the underside of the crossbar early in the second half the closest either team went to breaking the deadlock.
Al Ahli appeared to be building towards a rousing finish in front of their own supporters but they ended the match with 10 men after Abdulaziz Husain lashed out at substitute Gao Lin in an off-the-ball incident after 84 minutes.
The Chinese Super League champions remain favourites to hand Scolari the career World Cup and AFC Champions League coaching double that his Italian predecessor, Marcello Lippi, completed in 2013, with the return leg taking place in a fortnight.
Paulinho lost his footing to send Guangzhou’s first opportunity over the crossbar, although the former Tottenham midfielder produced a far more accomplished effort in the 18th minute as he curled a low drive from the edge of the penalty area agonisingly wide of Ahmed Mahmoud’s right-hand post.
The pressure on Mahmoud’s goal continued, as he acrobatically tipped Zheng Zhi’s volley out of the top corner.
However, Al Ahli grew into the match as the half progressed.
Winger Ismaeel Al Hammadi surged forward on the break in the 33rd minute and forced Guangzhou goalkeeper Zeng Cheng to push a rasping shot behind.
Zheng Long then slashed an attempt for Guangzhou wildly over three minutes before half-time, with the earlier poise shown by Scolari’s team no longer so clearly in evidence.
Guangzhou were almost ahead within a minute of the restart as Huang thumped a shot against the crossbar from 15 yards.
Al Ahli striker Lima responded with a 55th-minute strike that was deflected behind, much to the relief of Zeng.
Paulinho had penalty appeals waved away before Mahmoud made a fine reaction save in the 71st minute – substitute Yu Hanchao swivelling to send Huang’s pin-point cross arrowing towards the bottom corner.
There was impressive goalkeeping at the other end, with Zeng keeping calm inside a crowded penalty area to punch Everton Ribeiro’s dangerous free-kick to safety.
The hosts enjoyed a more sustained spell of pressure as a tense finale appeared to take its toll on Guangzhou.
Tempers were close to boiling point as Mei Fang earned a yellow card for scything through Ribeiro, but it was Husain’s indiscipline that denied Al Ahli the chance to mount a final push for victory.