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?