How soon can a new signing earn legendary status?
Lima could test this out tonight as he bids to fire Al Ahli into the hallowed AFC Champions League final and continue his remarkable introduction.
The 32-year-old has had an incredible effect since a €7 million (Dh28.4m) switch from Benfica. His record at the Portuguese giants was exemplary, yet even the most optimistic members of the Red Knights’ recruitment team could not have envisaged the impact of a signing far from first choice when a tortuous hunt for a new striker began as far back as summer 2014.
A club which endured domestic disaster last term has been lifted by his presence, providing an instant cure to their chronic lack of goals. The 32-year-old could be enough to see the UAE celebrate its first entrant into the decider of the continent’s premier club competition in a decade.
An extraordinary 11 strikes have been plundered in his opening nine matches, scoring at least once in every appearance. Not bad for a player who did not feature prominently in the management’s list of targets.
The Brazilian struck a wonderful header during last month’s 1-1 semi-final draw at Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, an away goal making Ahli slight favourites to continue their historic run through the knockout stages in tonight’s second leg.
The Crescent are Asian royalty, winning the ACL twice and being runners-up three times – including last year against upstarts Western Sydney Wanderers. They have won all three of this term’s Saudi Professional League fixtures and boast a spine from the Saudi team which proved too good for the UAE in their recent 2018 World Cup qualifier.
Al Ain were brushed aside at this stage in 2014, a 4-2 aggregate victory doing little to detail the stark difference between the sides.
But even this fearsome set-up could do little to stop Lima. He set the platform for a confident display in Riyadh, quelling the febrile atmosphere inside the 68,752-capacity King Fahd International Stadium. The former Braga man’s dynamism and ability to make the ball stick will be key. Confidence abounds in the Ahli ranks, knowing if they create the chances they have a centre forward to put them away.
This was the case in the quarter-final against Naft Tehran. A trademark header was notched in Iran, before an unstoppable 30-yard drive which swerved devilishly reinforced belief at Rashid Stadium.
This affords boss Cosmin Olaroiu the opportunity to concentrate on drilling his defence, safe in the knowledge a premium of opportunities are now required at the other end. Ahmed Khalil was the hero of the group stage and round of 16 against the Boss, though he simply is not as reliable in front of goal.
Ahli’s hunt for an elite addition up top was circuitous. Miniscule Bani Yas striker Carlos Munoz proved ill-suited and was quickly mothballed after his October 2014 purchase from Bani Yas, a last-minute hitch prevented a February move for Newcastle United’s Papiss Cisse while Luiz Adriano’s snub in favour of AC Milan in July could have been terminally damaging.
Lima was snapped up on deadline day for the remaining stages of the 2015 ACL, prior enquiries for Galatasaray’s Burak Yilmaz and Swansea City’s Bafetimbi Gomis coming to naught. Through fortune alone, they ended up with Lima. This could prove the greatest twist of fate in Red Knights history.
Bayern boss says Arsenal have the advantage as they have to win Pep Guardiola has warned Bayern Munich to expect to face an Arsenal ‘animal’ fighting for Champions League survival at the Emirates Stadium tonight.
The German giants arrived in London on the back of a record ninth consecutive Bundesliga victory and are runaway leaders of Group F with maximum points from two European ties, scoring eight goals with no reply.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have slumped to successive defeats in Europe leaving them bottom of the table and facing an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages once again.
However, given the Gunners’ impressive domestic form since their shock 3-2 home reverse by Olympiakos on match day two, Guardiola knows Bayern must be on their guard despite having recorded victories on each of their last visits to Ashburton Grove in successive European campaigns.
Likely Arsenal line-up:
“For them, they have an advantage because they have to win, when that happens with these kind of players, and the history of this club, they are going to make the best performance possible,” Guardiola said. “I don’t expect anything other than a fight for the 90 minutes.
“We have to look for another way to compete against them because of the enthusiasm they will have, so we will have to be intelligent and control our game.”
The ex-Barca coach continued: “Of course I prefer to come here with six points, but I can imagine my team with zero points and playing in Germany against Arsenal.
“I can imagine the mentality of my team – we would be an animal, because it is our last chance, you give everything and that will happen.
“We saw what happened with Arsenal against Zagreb and Olympiakos, when no-one expected them to win, and it will be the same for us tomorrow.”
Arsene Wenger knows he must get the balance right as Arsenal look for the victory to keep alive hopes of qualification, but also pay Bayern, the 2012-13 European Cup winners, their due respects
“You can consider the teams who win the Champions League are the best in the world because most of the time they win after the World Cup of the clubs in recent years,” he said.
“However, there is no team without weaknesses.
Likely Bayern Munich line-up:
“What we want to do is win the game. We want to defend well, attack well, score the first goal, that is massively important in the big games. You can never promise you will score three goals in 20 minutes because that would be absolutely crazy. What we can do is start in a strong way and that is what we will try to do.”
Wenger feels Arsenal need to show a completely different attitude from when they were beaten away by Dinamo Zagreb on matchday one and then slumped to a 3-2 home defeat by Olympiakos.
“We have some ground to make up in Europe as we have not been at our requested level in our first two games,” said Wenger, who will have centre-back Gabriel available again following illness, but goalkeeper David Ospina has a shoulder injury.
“Our focus has been much stronger in the Premier League than in Europe and we know in this game the focus needs to be exactly the same as in the Premier League.”
Arsene Wenger vs Pep Guardiola head-to-head
The two managers have met six times in Europe, with Wenger winning just once.
Guardiola – three wins
Wenger – one win
Draws – two
Al Ahli’s entertainers have got what it takes to blow away Al Hilal on Tuesday night and earn a historic AFC Champions League final berth, according to boss Cosmin Olaroiu.
The Red Knights will head out at an electric Rashid Stadium buoyed by a 1-1 draw from last month’s first leg away tothe Saudi Arabian heavyweights.
Red-hot Brazilian striker Lima, compatriot Everton Ribeiro and UAE forward Ahmed Khalil have inspired the club’s first lengthy run in the knockout stages.
Their Romanian boss believes this attacking strength will be decisive, rather than his experience at the helm of this evening’s opposition and the Saudi national team.
“In football, everyone has a tendency to believe it is a science or purely mathematical,” the 46-year-old said. “Football is a show, made by artists.
“Any moment they can improvise or do things you cannot expect. That is why everyone looks for players with quality, who can decide things by themselves.
“You know the opponent, how they move or how they will attack or defend.
“But you do not know when they will shoot or how.
“This depends on the quality of the players and Hilal have a lot of these players. Our information, my knowledge and my information will help – but it will not be decisive.
“This is a game which has more psychological power and strength. The [Ahli] players will succeed.”
For Ahli to reach next month’s two-legged decider against the best team from east Asia, they will have to conquer continental royalty.
Giorgos Donis’ side have won the competition twice, last year’s shock defeat to Western Sydney Wanderers also the third time they had been runners-up. In contrast, the Red Knights would be the first UAE team to make the final since Al Ain’s defeat to Al Ittihad a decade ago.
“We have only one way to play and that is to win” – Olaroiu
But Olaroiu – who lifted three major trophies from 2007-09 at Hilal – believes “everything is forgotten” in the heat of battle.
He said: “Experience or quality doesn’t matter, everything is forgotten once you step on the field. They have strong and weak points, so do we.
“But I think in this moment my players want more than anyone to play the final. This is a unique moment of their lives, we don’t know when it will be happen again.”
Hilal have not played since last month’s first leg. Their preparations have been far from ideal, Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Khalid Sharhili being banished from the squad for “amateur behaviour” and Brazilian centre-back Digao continuing to serve an ACL suspension.
“I have to say, we are a very professional team,” said Donis when questioned about Sharhili. “I don’t like amateur behaviour.
“If someone continues with that, there is no place for him in the club. He was not at training yesterday [Sunday] as I need to protect the spirit and not destroy the dressing room. We worked a lot of months now in this competition to go step-by-step, to work for this target.”
Ahli had never made it past the group stages in the ACL in five previous attempts. A goalless draw against Hilal the last time the sides met in Dubai contributed to their hopes being torpedoed in 2014.
This time, the same result would see them through courtesy of Lima’s headed away goal in Riyadh, which was cancelled out by Ailton’s late leveller.
“We have to forget this, we start from 0-0,” Olaroiu warned. “Playing a team like Hilal is difficult, especially if you start thinking only about defending – we have only one way to play and that is to win.”
UAE defender Walid Abbas could be fit enough to start after being on the bench for Thursday’s 3-1 victory against Sharjah in the Arabian Gulf League. Otherwise, Olaroiu has a full squad to choose from.