If this was Al Ahli in “not the best situation”, as boss Cosmin Olaroiu bemoaned pre-match, the rest of the 2017 AFC Champions League should beware.
The Red Knights transcended a striking crisis, internal tumult and recent domestic acquiescence to power into the competition’s round of 16 for just the second time.
Fuelled by irrepressible Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro, who conjured a goal to savour as he playfully chipped over helpless and hapless goalkeeper Mamur Ikromov before he volleyed home, they ran rampant against overawed Uzbek League leaders Lokomotiv Tashkent to seal top spot in Group A and avoid a showdown with bitter rivals Al Ain.
“If you ask me I prefer against Al Ain, but this would not be good for Emirates because one of the teams would go out,” said Olaroiu, whose charges will now battle Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah over two legs later this month.
“I hope we’re going (to) have the chance to play against them in the semi-final and for sure, one team would be in the final.”
Faded Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan’s delightful dinked finish topped off a rejuvenated display in the absences of Ahmed Khalil and Makhete Diop.
Dynamic UAE winger Ismail Al Hammadi was denied a stunning effort of his own when a low, 20-yard drive struck the post and rebounded in off Ikromov’s back.
Cherished nights like this have become rarer for the dethroned Arabian Gulf League holders. Others must be produced to prevail against Christian Gross’ men, who also relinquished their local league title this term.
Ahli instantly took command of a game in which just a draw was enough to guarantee progression against opponents with slim hopes. Centre-back Salmeen Khamis headed into an open goal early on to settle nerves, before three more followed in the second half.
Al Hammadi was unfortunate not to chalk one up for himself, while Gyan – for his first in five ACL games this term – and Ribeiro finished with aplomb after racing clear.
The mood at Rashid Stadium was arguably more inauspicious two years ago.
From that low point, they raced to a narrow defeat in the final. Could the scenario repeat?
Recently-dismissed Argentina boss Edgardo Bauza is determined to close on Asia’s football heavyweights after he travelled to Dubai on Tuesday in order to seal a two-year deal as the UAE’s next coach.
Bauza, 59, departed from his native country after terms were agreed to succeed Mahdi Ali and reignite the Whites’ faltering bid for a second-ever World Cup qualification. This marks an instant return to work after he was sacked last month after just eight miserable matches in charge of La Albiceleste.
Speaking to reporters outside Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires, El Paton targeted advancements towards Group B-opponents Japan and Australia on the Road to Russia.
“I know the soccer of that area because I worked four months in Arabia [at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in 2009],” he told ESPN Argentina. “It’s not the Emirates but I know the nature of the players from there.
“I’m traveling to close on details of the contract and to see the work conditions. There is a game in 25 days [in Thailand on June 13].
“We have to know the team and get it ready. I saw some videos but I need to know it more.
“The goal is to be close to Japan and Australia, the two big teams in that area.”
Bauza – who won three caps and travelled to World Cup 1990 as a player – has concurred on an outline agreement which expires immediately after the 2019 Asian Cup, which is to be held in the Emirates. The highlights of his managerial career have been winning the Copa Libertadores with Ecuador’s LDU Quito in 2008 and Argentina’s San Lorenzo in 2014.
The UAE are fourth with three games left in the third-and-final round of qualifying for World Cup 2018, one place and four points outside the advancement spots in Group B.
After the match in Bangkok versus already-eliminated opponents, they host Bert van Marwijk’s high-flying Saudi Arabia on August 31 and finish off against Iraq on September 5. They will likely need to take all nine points to stand any chance of success.
Al Ahli goalkeeper Majed Nasser has refused to get carried away by thoughts of another all-UAE round-of-16 clash ahead of the battle with Uzebekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent which will decide his side’s fate.
The Red Knights must avoid a loss on Tuesday night as Group A rounds up to guarantee a second-ever entry into the knockout stages. The historic previous run, which ultimately ended in defeat to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande in November 2015’s final, contained a meeting with bitter rivals Al Ain and a draw will likely set-up a repeat against the Group C winners.
“It is great to play big teams in Asia,” said 33-year-old Nasser, whose club currently tops the pool.
“If we are to play a team from the UAE, it will be different from an Arabian Gulf League game.
“I hope to qualify and whoever we play next, it doesn’t matter.”
Ahli’s only defeat in the group came in Tashkent during February, midfielder Salamat Kutibaev scoring the second-fastest goal ever seen in the competition to spark a 2-0 win. To avoid another reversal versus the Uzbek League leaders, coach Cosmin Olaroiu will have to manage a striking crisis with Ahmed Khalil injured and Makhete Diop suspended.
But the Romanian was convinced his players will battle through.
He said: “We are not in the best situation, but I hope and trust the players to make one more effort, be concentrated and focused to reach our target to qualify.”
Bottom-placed Loko – who were beaten 1-0 on aggregate in last year’s quarter-finals by the Boss – must win on the road in the ACL for just the second time in 12 games to stand any chance of progression.
“I think both teams will show good football and if you see in last games, we scored many goals,” said optimistic coach Andrey Miklyaev. “We can also score many goals again and win the match.”
Elsewhere, newly-crowned AGL winners Al Jazira finish up a miserable Asian campaign at Iran’s Esteghlal Khuzestan.