Coach Cosmin Olaroiu has sternly rejected reports he has agreed to swap Al Ahli for Al Ahli Jeddah, ahead of Saturday’s likely loss of the Arabian Gulf League title.
The ex-Al Hilal supremo has been linked with a return to Saudi Arabia as Christian Gross’ replacement. Such a move would see the 47-year-old prematurely call time on a trophy-laden four-year spell at Rashid Stadium, following a season stained by institutional tumult.
“They are just rumours,” said Olaroiu, whose side must beat Sharjah and hope runaway leaders Al Jazira slip-up at Hatta. “I respect my contract with Al Ahli, which expires at the end of next season.”
Meanwhile, Al Ain boss Zoran Mamic has urged his stars to keep pushing for the top-three and 2018 AFC Champions League qualification when they welcome Al Wahda.
The Boss – who roared into the 2017 edition’s round of 16 with a 3-0 midweek win at Iran’ Zob Ahan – trail Al Wasl by two points following the previous humiliating 4-3 reversal against them when three-goals up.
“We are concentrating on the game versus Al Wahda and are fighting for third,” said Mamic, who will be without banned 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman. “We need all nine points left.”
Elsewhere, Ajman have gone up as First Division League champions thanks to their quickfire fightback against Masfut and promoted Dubai CSC’s shock loss to second-bottom Al Arabi.
A 2-0 loss to Dubai had demoted the Orange Brigade into second for Thursday’s final round. Their hopes of gaining a second FDL crown in six years appeared bleak when French forward Fatrie Sakhi stormed through, only for low efforts from Moroccan winger Reda Hajhouj and veteran Brazilian Luiz Henrique to turn it around.
Dubai head into the Arabian Gulf League as runners-up courtesy of forward Abdulla Al Kaabi’s solitary effort for Arabi.
Neither the vociferous home fans nor the damp weather seemed to affect the Red Knights as they bossed the first-half and opened the scoring slickly via the most unlikely of sources – right-back Abdelaziz Haikal.
But the hosts roared back in the second-half and equalised just before the hour mark through towering striker Kaveh Rezaei.
Alireza Mansourian’s hosts started brightly by dominating possession but could not break down the rigid Red Knights and the visitors took the lead stylishly in the 17th minute.
Brazilian schemer Everton Ribeiro chipped over the blue wall of the home defence to Makhete Diop and his perfectly weighted header fell into the path of the onrushing Haikal whose adroit side-footed finish silenced the Azadi.
Going behind seemed to kick the home side into life though and after Rezaei went down dramatically, they went close when a partially cleared corner fell to Vouria Ghafouri but his shot flew harmlessly over.
Rezaei was felled easily under minimal contact from Salmin Khamis, who surprisingly escaped punishment considering the award of a free-kick. He and Ahli were let off once more when Nasser palmed away Yaghoub Karimi’s subsequent free-kick.
Brazilian defender Leandro Padovani didn’t avoid the book when he lunged in on Ribeiro on the edge of the box, but Ahmed Khalil’s effort was woeful.
Mansourian’s men stepped it up after the break and levelled in the 58th minute through that man Rezaei.
A quick throw released Khosro Heydari whose hopeful lobbed cross was headed home by Rezaei who got in between two markers.
Ismail Al Hammadi’s snap-shot was gathered by Mehdi Rahmati as Ahli responded before Esteghlal were denied when Nasser raced out to deny Rezaei.
The hosts looked the more likely team to find a winner, although the game dripped towards a dour conclusion to leave both sides on eight points, three ahead of Al Taawon and Lokomotiv Tashkent with one more round of fixtures to come.
Elsewhere, Al Jazira’s thoroughly wretched Champions League campaign continued as they suffered a fourth defeat from five games in Asia.
The hosts took the lead at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium through Mbark Boussoufa’s penalty, only for South Korea international Nam Tae-hee to equalise for Qatari champions Lekhwiya with his own spot kick.
He edged the visitors in front just past the hour and Youssef Msakni put Lekhwiya on the verge of making the knockout stages when he made it 3-1.
Balazs Dzsudzsak hopes he can carve out his own small piece of Al Wahda history by winning the President’s Cup with the Clarets next month.
The Hungary winger coolly converted a 93rd minute penalty on Wednesday night that won a tight and tense semi-final against valiant Sharjah 1-0 – booking the Abu Dhabi side a spot in their seventh final, but a first in six seasons.
The 2010/11 showpiece ended in misery and a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of fellow capital city side Al Jazira. It was also a familiar feeling for Wahda, who have lost four of the five finals contested.
They also finished on the losing side in 1988/89, 1995/96, 2002/03 and 2004/05. Their sole victory came 17 years ago in the 1999/00 campaign and Dzsudzsak claims it would mean a lot to him and the club to beat Al Nasr, who overcame Hatta 1-0 on Thursday.
“It would mean everything to win this trophy,” said the 30-year-old, who notched twice against Portugal in last summer’s epic 3-3 group stage draw at Euro 2016.
“I’m very happy that after eight months I am here, we are already in the final and I can become a little part of the club history with these guys.
“I’m very proud of the team because when I came here I said I wanted to win something. I saw the competency of the team and we are ready for the final, we deserve it so I’m very, very happy.”
Former PSV and Dinamo Moscow man Dzsudzsak took his President’s Cup tally to three in three games in the competition, following his brace in the 6-0 humbling of Al Jazira in the last eight. And despite his relatively short time at Al Nahyan Stadium, he says he is fully aware of how the prestige of the competition.
“It was very nice (to score), he added.
“Very interesting in the last minute and it’s not a normal thing for us in the season because we never usually get the penalties. That moment came in the last minute and the coach put me in to take it, so it was a very nice feeling.
“I was very confident. I knew how I was going to shoot and where and now we are in the final.
“This week I had three meetings with the managers, the directors. Everyone was saying don’t worry about pressure, they just wanted to let me know what it meant for the club, for them.
(In the final) I think we just have to look at ourselves. We have nothing to lose. We did our job and we are there, and we have to win.”
It was something of a surprise to see Dzsudzsak handed penalty responsibilities with Argentine striker Sebastian Tagliabue on the field.
But Wahda coach Javier Aguirre revealed he made the decision as he didn’t think his lethal marksman was ready having missed a spot kick against Al Hilal in the AFC Champions League earlier this month.
“Sebastian was the normal penalty taker but I decided (to let Dzsudzsak take it,” said the Mexican.
“Sebastian missed one penalty in Saudi and I spoke with him and I felt he was not ready to take one again yet.”