Lethal Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima’s superb opener for Al Wasl was not enough to prevent a losing return to the AFC Champions League after 10 years away, substitute Baghdad Bounedjah turning the game around with his late brace in Al Sadd’s painful 2-1 victory.
In a tight Group C-opener, De Lima brilliantly found the bottom corner in the 26th minute. Algeria centre forward Bounedjah then emerged to convert Spain icon Xavi’s cutting pass and punish awful defending on the stroke of injury time.
Here, are the major talking points:
NAIVE CHEETAHS GET CLAWED
Wasl coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena will regret the accuracy of his pre-match prediction.
The ex-Argentina left-back noted a glaring disparity in experience to the QNB Stars League’s second-placed team – he was proved right.
Wasl’s thin, top-heavy squad lacked the nous to prevent Xavi wrestling control from their grasp after a bright start. Sadd replacements Akram Afif and Bounedjah also excelled.
You can possess attacking talent to envy, but this elite level requires much more.
XAVI’S TIMELESS ABILITY
The near 6,000-strong crowd at Zabeel Stadium were witnessing some of the final acts in one of football’s best careers.
At 38-years old and with retirement assured this summer, Xavi’s role is now to provide constant direction and guidance to his team rather than consistent excellence.
Not that the man who played 767 times for Barcelona and 133 times for Spain cannot still influence proceedings from midfield. His inspired assist for Bounedjah’s 79th-minute leveller dissected a packed penalty box.
WASL’S DECADE OF CHANGE
Even in defeat, Wasl must reflect on how far they’ve come.
The Cheetahs dug their claws into the 1980s, winning four of their seven Arabian Gulf League crowns.
But a tumultuous few years were witnessed between May 21, 2008’s 1-1 draw against Iran’s Saipa in the ACL and Tuesday night’s continental return versus Sadd.
A steep decline was witnessed after 2006/07’s last title triumph; controversial Argentina icon Maradona turning them into a circus act in 2011/12 and relegation even being flirted with in 2013/14. They should not forget this.
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.