Al Wahda’s prospects in the 2017 AFC Champions League appear bleak after two late goals from Persepolis centre forward Mehdi Taremi saw the hosts snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
A spectacular half-time introduction from club legend Ismail Matar looked to have turned this Group D-clash the Clarets’ way, following forward Vahid Amiri’s early close-range effort for the Persian Gulf Pro League’s pacesetters.
This goal caused a third member of the UAE’s faltering four-strong ACL contingent to concede within the first five minutes during the past two days.
In response, the former-mentioned 33-year-old expertly chipped in an equaliser and then deftly sparked the move from which enigmatic Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia lashed in to make it 2-1 just past the hour mark.
But with less than 10 minutes left, Jorge Aguirre’s suspect three-man defence – a formation not previously utilised by the Mexican – was exposed.
Iran target man Taremi first outjumped everyone to convert vice-captain Hossein Mahini’s lofted cross, before crucially slipping through a porous backline at the death to embarrassingly volley in Soroush Rafiei’s cute free-kick.
With two defeats from two matches and the daunting visit of Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal to come in a fortnight, a swift elimination upon the end of their six-year wait to feature in Asia’s elite club competition seems inevitable.
“After taking the lead we had two clear chances that could have killed the game,” Aguirre said. “We played better in the second half, but we fell flat in the last 10 minutes, perhaps, the players panicked.”
Taremi’s heroics made it a glorious return to Al Nahyan Stadium for coach Branko Ivankovic, who was sacked midway through a two-year deal in April 2013.
His current charges both lived up to their physical billing and proved why more than a third of Iran’s training squad in January was drawn from their ranks. A foothold in West Asia’s most-exacting section is just reward.
The Croatian said: “We are in a group of death and the three points are very important for us to keep our hopes of qualifying.”
Rodolfo Arruabarrena is not giving up hope of winning the Arabian Gulf League title, although he insists Al Wasl can’t afford another insipid performance like Friday’s 1-1 draw with relegation-threatened Ittihad Kalba.
The Cheetahs threatened to run away with the points early on as they peppered the visitors’ goal, but Goran Tufegdzic’s side grew into the game and arguably had enough chances to take all three points rather than the one the draw earned them.
Former Al Ahli striker Ciel was guilty of wasting two glorious chances at Zabeel Stadium, while a crucial last-ditch block by captain Waheed Ismail in the final minutes prevented Bakary Kone from netting a winner.
“There were moments I liked my team and moments I didn’t like my team. We made too many mistakes defensively,” said Arruabarrena bluntly.
“When we are playing these teams from the middle to the bottom we have to show why we are on the top, and today we didn’t show that.”
Although Wasl are unbeaten in their last five league games, the gap to runaway AGL leaders Al Jazira is 10 points. The Argentine though is not giving up hope of bringing a first league title to the Bur Dubai club in a decade.
“Yes, we still have hope that we can win the title,” said Arruabarrena, a former left-back who won six caps for La Albiceleste from 1994-2006.
“If you look at the points to play for you can see we still have a chance. I think that the goal difference to Al Jazira is too big, but there are some points to make up. The good thing is that we are close to the other teams. We have seven matches left so 21 points to play for.
“It is true Al Jazira is strong and have played well, so they have a big difference, but we have to carry on working. There are still lots of points for each team and some games against each other.”
Wasl travel to reigning champions Ahli, a point above them, and welcome Al Ain, who they are level on 40 points with, in April, and the 41-year-old ex-Boca Juniors coach is refusing to throw in the towel.
He said: “We have to work and I don’t say that it is over. After we will see at the end who will finish first, second, third and fourth.
“If we have the same problems we had in defence today again, it will be very difficult to win with that. We will have a rest then Sunday we start thinking about Bani Yas, which will be very difficult.”
Al Jazira have been head and shoulders above the rest of their rivals this season, but right-back Mohammed Fawzi wants the Pride of Abu Dhabi to transfer their domestic form onto the continent.
The Arabian Gulf League leaders have been imperious in sweeping to the top of the table following a dreadful 2015/16 campaign that had promised much but saw them eventually limp home in seventh – a distant 29 points behind eventual champions Al Ahli.
This season, however, they have been mesmerising. Henk ten Cate’s men have lost just once in 19 games – a 2-0 defeat to Al Nasr in December, and they are nine points clear of the second-placed Red Knights with seven games remaining.
But, as the Abu Dhabi giants get set to kick off their 2017 AFC Champions League campaign at Qatar’s Lekhwiya on Monday, UAE international Fawzi hopes they can mix with Asia’s finest after a woeful 2016 campaign.
“The Champions League is something different for me and the players and we are waiting for this competition,” said the 26-year-old, who arrived at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in the summer from AGL rivals Al Ain.
“First we have to play well to represent our country and then to show all the people that UAE football is good. It’s also about how you market yourself in Asia, lots more people will be watching us and this is what the players need.
“I hope Al Jazira do well in the competition, like we are doing in the league, and I am excited to start the Champions League.”
Amid their struggles last term, Jazira capitulated in the Champions League, finishing rock bottom of Group C with just one point – posting the competition’s second worst record after Thailand’s Buriram United.
But Fawzi insists the players are not thinking about last season.
“We didn’t turn back and look at what happened last year, we don’t think about it,” he added.
“We just have to not think about last year. This year is different. Jazira have young players who are hungry to play and win each game. I’m happy because they are helping me since coming here and I’m excited to start.”
And, even before a ball is kicked, Fawzi admitted the capital city club have ambitions to go far in Asia’s premier competition.
He added: “For me I want to go far. I want to go far in each competition, whatever it is, even if it’s PlayStation. This is what we like at Jazira. We want to go far and this mindset is how we can be successful.”
Fawzi has played at the UAE’s three biggest clubs in his relatively short career – Ahli, Al Ain and now Jazira – but he was either too young or too much of a bit-part player to really establish himself at either the Red Knights or the Boss.
Despite winning an AGL medal with both Ahli in 2008/09 and Al Ain in 2014/15, Fawzi, 27 on Wednesday, knew he had to make a change, which was behind his decision to uproot from the Garden City in the summer.
“I came here to fight, to win, to be a champion,” added Fawzi.
“Maybe when I was at Al Ain I played but not much because of injury, but this is something different here. You have to think about yourself sometimes, but wherever you go you have to fight. If what you do doesn’t come good you have to change. This is normal.
“I am happy to be with my brothers and with my friends at Jazira and I hope they are as happy as me. We are looking forward and inshallah we will do something different in the Champions League compared to last season.”
And the maturing defender acknowledges that with exciting youngsters like Khalfan Mubarak, Saif Khalfan, Salim Rashid, Mohamed Jamal and Ahmed Al Attas around him, he is in a position to offer advice to the next generation.
He added: “Is it the happiest season in my career? I don’t know because I was also a champion with Al Ahli. It’s a better season for me. I’m taking responsibility in the team now, so in that sense it’s my best year.
“Now I’m 26. Before I was young and I had older, big players helping me. Now I am one of the senior players so I have to take my brothers with me. It’s different. It’s not better, not worse, but different, and it means a lot to me (to be playing regularly).”