A weakened Al Wahda were put to the sword in their brutal Group B-opener by Uzbekistan powerhouse Lokomotiv Tashkent, for whom attacking midfielder Ikram Alibaev may have already wrapped up the 2018 AFC Champions League’s goal-of-the-season award with his 52-yard lob in this 5-0 hammering.
With foreign stars Sebastian Tagliabue, Mourad Batna and Rim Chang-woo all left in Abu Dhabi, a youthful Clarets side were ripped asunder by rampant hosts on Monday. Brazilian centre forward Nivaldo slotted in the deserved 25th-minute opener, prior to a painful second-half collapse.
A trio of strikes went in from the 53-59th minute, the highlight being Uzbekistan international Alibaev’s stylish flick and precision chip from within his own half. In this spell, centre-back Saleem Sultan also erroneously slotted into the roof of Wahda’s net and ex-Al Jazira forward Sardor Rashidov found the bottom corner with stand-in goalkeeper Rashid Ali culpable.
The scoring was then rounded off with three minutes left by Alibaev’s powerful header from the edge of the penalty box.
Clarets coach Laurentiu Reghecampf must hope the trauma from this day does not transfer to Thursday’s quarter-final decider in the Arabian Gulf Cup against Al Ain, or their continuing challenge for the Arabian Gulf League.
Tough taskmaster Caio Canedo has warned Spain legend Xavi’s Al Sadd that Al Wasl will be the ones who “set the rules” when the teams kick-off their 2018 AFC Champions League commitments.
The Cheetahs are roaring back into Asia’s premier club competition for the first time in a decade. Their berth in Group C was earned via an electric run to runners-up in the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League, fuelled by deadly Brazilian attackers Canedo, Fabio De Lima and Ronaldo Mendes.
Tuesday’s opponents sit second in a tight QNB Stars League. They also boast superior pedigree on the continent, although the 2011 winners’ 11th entrance ends a run of back-to-back play-off defeats – 2016’s coming in Abu Dhabi against Al Jazira.
For Canedo, reputations will count for nothing at Zabeel Stadium.
“We play at home and we are going to fight, equal to equal,” said the 27-year-old, who has 12 goals in 15 top-flight matches this term. “Every time we play at home, we always aim for three points.
“In my house, I set the rules. My team has to start off with three points.
“It’s our house, we have to play to win. That’s it, we set the rules.”
As always, Wasl – who are winless in their last two matches – will look to Rodolfo Arruabarrena for guidance. He scored key goals when Spain’s Villarreal reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2005/06, won the Copa Libertadores at Boca Juniors in 2000 and later guided the Argentines as coach to 2015’s round of 16.
He said: “It is my first time in this competition, although as a player I played in the Champions League in Europe. I always say my experiences as a player, I don’t care.
“The other team has more experience, they usually player year by year. They have important players like Xavi and players who played in the Spanish leagues.
“We hope to do the match we want and things we prepared. It is a very important day for the club, players and the staff, as for several years we haven’t played this competition.”
Elsewhere in the pool, Persian Gulf Pro League holders Persepolis host Uzbekistan Super League runners-up Nasaf.
Here, we examine the standout performers:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Otabek Shukurov (Sharjah)
Uzbekistan royalty has been procured by the King.
Shukurov, 22, helped corral a Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club midfield that contained UAE internationals Habib Fardan and Khamis Esmail, before showing superb energy deep into injury time to drive into the box and earn the match-winning penalty.
Sharjah’s work in the market has had more hits than misses in recent years. Their January buy looks to be in the former category.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Hassan Mohammed (Al Wasl)
Vital points appeared set to drain down the gutter as the Cheetahs went about chasing down Al Jazira’s 1-0 half-time lead.
Their cause appeared utterly forlorn as suspended 12-goal striker Caio Canedo watched on from the stands at Zabeel Satdium.
Mohammed had looked every inch the stand-in, that is until a moment of inspiration came in the 85th minute. He athletically sprung into the air and directed a perfect header into the far corner, for his first league goal this term.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Gjoko Hadzievski (Al Dhafra)
For the first time since September 21’s second round of top-flight fixtures, the Western Knights have the sweet feeling of success.
This was a clutch match for Hadzievski, defeat to fellow strugglers Dibba Al Fujairah not worth countenancing.
Instead, goals from UAE reserve striker Saeed Al Kathiri – via a poor defensive header – and Uzbekistan forward Igor Sergeev provided hope.
This win also saw them escape the foot of the table.
Who knows where the Shabab Al Ahli experiment is headed?
Teething problems for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club continue to bite, more than eight months since May’s tumultuous merger.
A team packed full of UAE internationals are 18 points off the pace, disillusionment in the stands against Sharjah saw a banner unfurled asking for clarity from club management and rumours swirl about a return to the separate entities.
This confusion is not helping anyone at Rashid Stadium.