Al Wahda will fight to lift just a second-ever President’s Cup title next month after they overcame Sharjah 1-0 in a tight and tense semi-final.
Victory was delivered in stoppage time via Balazs Dzsudzsak’s penalty, after referee Mohammed Hassan pointed correctly to the spot when Gelmin Rivas clearly handled Ismail Matar’s corner.
That was the second of his decision’s that benefited Wahda – the first just before half time when Rashed Ali brilliantly kept out Yousif Saeed’s effort. Television replays showed about 99 per cent of the ball had crossed the line.
Unlike their opponents, who have lifted a joint record eight trophies in this competition, Wahda only know President’s Cup misery.
The Clarets have tasted defeat five times in the final, most recently in the 2010/11 season as they were thrashed 4-0 by Al Jazira – their only victory coming 17 years ago when they beat Al Wasl 8-7 on penalties.
A similarly slender margin saw them reach a seventh final at Al Nasr’s Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium last night, although defeat, and the manner of it, was heartbreakingly harsh on Sharjah.
Victorious Wahda coach Javier Aguirre paid tribute to his experienced players like Dzsdudzsak, Matar, Sebastian Tagliabue and Jorge Valdivia, whose patience paid off after they had been second best for large periods.
“There’s no doubt the experience of those players, and even my 40 years in coaching, helped,” he said. “It’s in these types of moments we have to show why we are here. Dzsdudzsak, for example, it’s not easy to take a penalty in the 92nd minute.”
Sharjah counterpart Jose Peseiro, who previously managed Wahda, revealed he was “sad” for his team’s exit, and also claimed Hassan got both of the game’s key decisions wrong.
“We are sad because I think our performance deserved more,” said the Portuguese.
“In football the referee can commit mistakes, like a coach, you see how this happens in the Bayern Munich v Real Madrid game. Unfortunately two mistakes were against us. In my opinion it’s a goal and the penalty, our player didn’t open his arms, so it’s impossible to give a penalty.”
In a game of desperately low quality, two crucial moments punctuated it. First, towards the end of the first half when Wahda goalkeeper Ali clawed away Saeed’s effort on the line.
Prior to that, Saeed had scuffed wide when bursting through down the left, while Salem Sultan narrowly failed to connect with Rim Chang-woo’s flick-on from a corner.
Rivas was denied on the hour mark by a brilliant Hamdan Al Kamali block as Sharjah looked the more likely to break the deadlock.
But Wahda were growing into the contest as Sharjah grew weary. Chile maverick Valdivia was introduced to create a spark but he wasted one chance before Tagliabue shot straight at Mohamed Yousif and then skewed horribly wide.
Then came the match’s second big moment. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, Wahda’s old father time, Ismail Matar, swung in a corner. Rivas jumped, eyes closed and both arms raised. It was a clear penalty.
The inevitable protests followed and a few yellow cards were dished out. After being made to wait several minutes, Hungary international Dzsudzsak showed all his experience and composure to curl his effort low and beyond Yousif, just, into the bottom corner.
Henk ten Cate is incredibly proud of Al Jazira’s transformation under his stewardship and says UAE striker Ali Mabkhout’s lethal form perfectly encapsulates the club’s philosophy since he took over.
The Dutchman replaced fallen Pride of Abu Dhabi idol Abel Braga in December 2015, who was sacked after his second spell at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium came to a sad end following a dreadful opening to the 2015/16 campaign.
Jazira were 13th at the time and in real danger of entering into a relegation dog-fight, but the turnaround under Ten Cate has been truly spectacular.
The former Ajax coach steadied the ship and steered Jazira to the safety of a seventh-placed Arabian Gulf League finish, while they also ended last season on a high by claiming the President’s Cup with a dramatic penalty shootout victory against Al Ain.
Jazira have been revitalised this term and, as they stand on the cusp of a first AGL title since Braga’s first reign ended in 2010/11, the club is set to dominate this season’s Arabian Gulf League awards which will take place on May 15 – with nominees in five categories revealed yesterday.
Ten Cate, who has won an incredible 26 of the 36 league games he has presided over since his arrival, is favourite for the coach of the year accolade, while star striker Mabkhout is also the frontrunner for the Best Emirati Player award.
Youngster Khalfan Mubarak has also had a breakout year and is considered one of the favourites for Best Young Player, while with 14 clean sheets and just 15 goals conceded in 23 games, goalkeeper Ali Khaseif is also in line for the Golden Glove accolade.
“Very proud. Very proud,” Ten Cate said when asked how he feels about overseeing a revolution at the Abu Dhabi giants.
“Not only the staff but the players. They do it, not us. We help them during the week but they are doing it.
“They came from almost the second division when I took over last year. They were 13th in the league and at the end of the season we had the President’s Cup in our hands. And this season, probably, we are going to have another trophy.”
If Jazira’s progress has been refreshing under Ten Cate, the development of Mabkhout under the former Barcelona and Chelsea assistant’s guidance has been stunning.
The 26-year-old has always had talent, but it is under the watchful eye of Ten Cate and his staff that the UAE forward has truly blossomed.
He stands top of the AGL scoring charts with an incredible 28 goals in 22 games in 2016/17 and has 51 in 45 games over the course of the last two seasons in the league – his previous highest mark was 16 from 24 games in 2014/15 – while he has scored 47 Jazira goals in 45 games under Ten Cate.
“I think the best example of our philosophy in the way we work is Ali Mabkhout,” added Ten Cate.
“Before we worked with him he scored six or seven goals per season. With this staff he has already scored 52 (five for the UAE) in a season and a half.
“It’s a lot and I think a local striker finishing top of the goalscoring charts doesn’t happen too often. It’s never happened in the professional era. His goals per game is incredible, it’s really special.”
Mabkhout is five goals ahead of Al Wasl’s Fabio De Lima this season with three games to go. If he manages to maintain his lead and top the individual charts, it will be some feat.
Do so and he will be the first Emirati player to finish top goalscorer in the AGL’s professional era, which started in 2008/09.
Al Ahli’s Faisal Khalil finished joint top in the final season of the amateur era the previous year with Sharjah’s Anderson Barbosa. The last time a local player topped the list outright was Ali Thani for Sharjah almost 20 years ago in the 1997/98 campaign.
Despite two convincing victories over Sharjah this season, Al Wahda coach Javier Aguirre has warned his players against complacency in Wednesday’s President’s Cup semi-final as they look to resurrect hopes of ending the season on a high.
The Clarets will travel to Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium with high hopes of reaching a first final since 2010/11 having gained the upper hand in both Arabian Gulf League meetings against Jose Peseiro’s men with crushing 7-1 and 5-1 wins. But it’s been a frustrating campaign for the Abu Dhabi outfit, who sit fifth in the league and saw their Arabian Gulf Cup defence and AFC Champions League campaign end in the group stages.
An emphatic 6-0 drubbing of last season’s President’s Cup winners and AGL champions-elect Al Jazira in the quarter-finals means the competition remains their only hope of silverware and is also a possible route into next year’s premier continental club competition.
Aguirre played down suggestions there is pressure on his team to claim just a second-ever title and their first since 2000 but acknowledged the importance of the match for the club.
“It’s the most important game of the year because it’s the last competition we can win,” said the 58-year-old Mexican.
“We are 90 minutes away from reaching the final and the whole team is ready. We don’t have any pressure. We know Al Wahda have won just one President’s Cup. There would be pressure if we won more, but 17 years have passed and we have the same pressure as Sharjah.”
The King – joint record champions of the President’s Cup with eight crowns – enter the game unbeaten in their last three matches. And former Wahda coach Peseiro is optimistic his team, who stunned Al Wasl 4-2 in the last eight, are capable of reaching their first final since 2006.
“There is every possibility we can win,” said the Portuguese. “We were beaten by them twice in the league but we can defeat them. Al Wahda are a strong side with a very good coach who played in the Champions League. But this won’t affect our confidence.”