Diego Maradona praised Al Ain talisman Omar Abdulrahman as his Fujairah side gave the Arabian Gulf League champions-elect a mighty fright before going down to a brave 4-2 defeat in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
Maradona’s men – chasing automatic promotion back to the top-flight for the first time since 2015/16 – took a shock eighth-minute lead through promising forward Mohamed Khalfan.
UAE striker Ahmed Khalil nodded the Boss level after half an hour before Hussein El Shahat’s cross was deflected in by veteran defender Hassan Ameen a minute later to make it 2-1 to the AGL league leaders at Shabal Al Ahli Dubai Club’s Al Aweer Stadium.
The Egypt midfielder then made it 3-1 before half-time to put the Garden City side in the driving seat when he superbly controlled and half-volleyed in at the back post, but defender Khaled Abdullah netted early in the second period to keep the Wolves snarling at the Al Ain door.
In an even second half, Brazilian forward Caio rounded goalkeeper Saleh Sadeq to make the game safe in stoppage time.
Argentina icon Maradona praised the spirit of his side and singled out Boss maestro Abdulrahman for special mention.
“In the first place I want to thank my players for putting up such a fight against a champion team like Al Ain,” said Maradona, the former Napoli and Barcelona magician.
“This was a big game for us against a really big team. And if at all there was one player who made all the difference, it was Omar [Abdulrahman].
“We are a small team and my one instruction to the players was to ensure that Omar doesn’t get the ball. But we were up against a quality team that is capable of winning everything including the Arabian Gulf League and every other trophy this season.”
Despite the disappointment of going out, Maradona, 57, said his players must use the defeat to bounce back into the big time next season.
“For us, this match has been an experience that we can learn from,” said the 1986 World Cup-winner.
“If you ask me now, I think Fujairah lacked the experience. We came here with an unbeaten record, but our achievement counted for nothing before a high-level team. Maybe we could have done well to play some other team. Tonight we lost to a champion side.
“If we do make it to Division One next season, you will find our team working the same way and matching the best due to the experience we have gained today.”
Al Ain counterpart Zoran Mamic was full of praise for the Wolves’ brave performance and was thankful his team escaped without any injuries or being taken to extra time.
“I will not broadcast a secret if I told you that I am very happy to get out of the game without any injuries,” said the Croatian.
“Ahmed Khalil got a kick in the ankle, but it is in a good position and he will return in the next game because he is strong and is a physically fit player.”
He added: “We were lucky that the game did not go to extra time, even though Fujairah suffered in the final moments of the game in a decline in fitness.
“I have a good experience in dealing with cup matches. When I was a trainer for Dynamo Zagreb, I met two second and third division teams and we could only win them in added time instead of the 90 minutes.”
The tie of the round pitted the ambitious First Division League-outfit against the Arabian Gulf League’s champions-elect. A fitting contest followed on Thursday at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club Stadium Al Aweer.
Maradona’s men – who are in the chase for automatic promotion back to the top flight for the first time since 2015/16 – took a shock eighth-minute lead through promising forward Mohamed Khalfan’s smart finish from a one-on-one. A response followed before the half-hour mark when prolific UAE striker Ahmed Khalil nodded home a bouncing ball for his sixth goal in purple.
The second followed for the Boss less than a minute later when Hussein El Shahat’s cross was critically deflected by veteran defender Hassan Ameen. The Egypt forward then definitely got his name on the score sheet before half-time when he superbly controlled and half-volleyed at the back stick.
Defender Khaled Abdullah gave the Wolves hope when he tucked in from a goal-mouth scramble shortly after the interval to make it 3-2. But the contest was taken away from them in second-half injury time when Brazilian forward Caio rounded goalkeeper Saleh Sadeq and placed into an open net.
Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club Al Aweer Stadium is set for an intriguing clash on Thursday when the Arabian Gulf League’s champions-elect and UAE’s most-decorated club face promotion hopefuls from First Division League, who possess one of football’s grandees in their dugout.
The ineffable World Cup 1986 winner has guided the Wolves to an undefeated debut campaign, but 10 draws – the latest being Friday’s 2-2 stalemate with Masfut – sees them clinging on to an automatic spot in second.
Mamic lauded his Argentinian opponent’s legendary achievements on the pitch, but insists he’ll be keeping focused on the task at hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet him and, of course, he’s one of the best players of all time in the world,” said the ex-Croatia international. “It’s a big, big pleasure for me.
“But I have my job, he has his job and I will try to do mine better.”
Another challenge for Mamic is being able to select only two of his usual four foreign players, to match Fujairah’s limited quota. Sweden No9 Marcus Berg is the most likely to be rested ahead of Monday’s 2018 AFC Champions League decider in Group D at Qatar’s Al Rayyan.
In the opposite corner, Maradona – who last coached Al Wasl in 2011/12 – lavished praise on this week’s favourites.
He said: “The quarter-final against Al Ain is a valuable gift and a good test for my own team’s abilities.
“This because Al Ain are at the forefront of the Emirati clubs and has a reputation at both a local and Asian level.”
SHABAB AL AHLI DUBAI CLUB V SHARJAH
Boss Mahdi Ali has challenged his Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club squad to maintain a chance of being able to “write their names into the history of the club” when they battle Sharjah in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
The competition provides the sole remaining possibility of salvaging silverware from a trying inaugural campaign. This is also the situation for Thursday’s opposition at Ajman’s Rashid bin Saeed Stadium, who also consumed Al Shaab last May.
“We hope to win the title,” said ex-UAE coach Ali. “If they do this, they will write their names into the history of the club.”
The King have been resurgent since club stalwart Abdulaziz Al Anbari was finally given a permanent shot at leading them after Portugal’s Jose Peseiro was sacked in October.
The Emirati has guided a side threatened with relegation upon arrival to just one spot and two points behind fifth-place Shabab Al Ahli in the Arabian Gulf League.