Despite less than two weeks to go until a historic first appearance in the AFC Champions League final, Al Ahli’s players insist their focus is on the next two Arabian Gulf League matches.
The Red Knights reached the Champions League final last Tuesday after a dramatic stoppage time goal from South Korean defender Kwon Kyung-won gave them a 3-2 second leg victory against Al Hilal to send Cosmin Olaroiu’s side through 4-3 on aggregate.
The first leg of the final against Guangzhou Evergrande will be played in Dubai on November 7.
Ahli’s players had five days’ rest between their Champions League semi-final and Sunday’s AGL match at Al Wahda, but they came through a testing fixture with flying colours, with a commanding 3-1 win at Al Nahyan Stadium.
They have two more league fixtures before the Champions League first leg, at home against Dibba Al Fujairah next Saturday and away at Emirates Club two days later.
Defender Nawaf Mubarak and goalkeeper Majed Nasser are both refusing to look too far beyond those two fixtures.
“We don’t think about the final, we focus on the league games and then we will focus on the final and prepare ourselves to play,” said Mubarak, capped 21 times by the UAE.
“We also think about the league. We want to win the league and we focus on this. Our coach is concentrating on this.
“We are focused to play each game separately. We scored three goals (against Wahda) and we controlled the game. Inshallah, we can continue this for this season.
“Always our level has to be the same or increasing. We cannot go back. We want to be at the top of the league so we have to keep moving.”
Domestic champions two seasons ago, and into their first continental club competition final, Mubarak knows there will now be an even bigger target on Ahli’s backs.
“Everybody thinks Al Ahli is a big team, because we reached the final, and everybody wants to beat us, so it’s not easy,” said the 34-year-old.
“Reaching the final has put a bigger target on our back, but it gives us more confidence to play when we reach this level and we have to show everyone it’s not by luck.”
Ahli and UAE stopper Nasser believes it would have been easy for the Red Knights to have stumbled against Wahda after Tuesday’s euphoria, but he said the AGL title is equally important for them.
“We cannot stop. That is very important,” said the 31-year-old.
“We must fight every game. We have a difficult game every game. We try to take more from each game but we must concentrate at each game, at each training session for the rest of the season.”
It was back to domestic business in fine style on Sunday night for Al Ahli as Cosmin Olaroiu’s men took apart mooted title challengers Al Wahda with a 3-1 win in the capital.
The Red Knights have been unrecognisable in the early weeks of the 2015-16 campaign from the side that were so shambolic in defence of their Arabian Gulf League title last season.
That is largely down to their new-look attack, who were again key to this victory with a brace for Everton Ribeiro and one for Rodrigo Lima.
Brazilian Lima has been making many of the headlines since a summer move from Benfica, but it was compatriot Ribeiro who stole the show in Abu Dhabi.
The playmaker was at the heart of this impressive performance, having a hand in all three goals as the visitors maintained their perfect start to the campaign.
The Red Knights have the first leg of a historic Champions League final against Chinese superpower Guangzhou Evergrande in 12 days following their dramatic 4-3 semi-final triumph against Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal six days ago.
Olaroiu might have dreaded a dip in performance after that energy-sapping effort but his side were dominant throughout a match orchestrated majestically by Ribeiro.
There were flashes of quality in the opening 45 minutes, but the game lacked any spark, instead punctuated by a flurry of yellow cards.
Uneventful until the 28th minute, Ribeiro injected some life in somewhat fortuitous circumstances when his cross evaded everyone, including Wahda goalkeeper Adel Al Hosani, and nestled in the corner.
Javier Aguirre’s side barely registered a chance in the first half and the Mexican must have had strong words at the break as his team were instantly improved after the interval, first Ismail Matar’s low free-kick whistled just wide and from the resulting corner former Arsenal midfielder Denilson was unlucky to see his side footed effort come back off the post.
Two more Brazilians combined to double Ahli’s advantage on the hour.
Hussain Fadel dithered in possession and had his pocket picked by Ribeiro, who rolled the ball into Lima’s path and the 32-year-old calmly converted his 13th goal in 11 games.
The hosts were looking far from the polished team that beat Al Ain 2-1 on the same pitch a month ago, although they were certainly not helped by a lack of atmosphere.
In their last home league game against the Boss, 7,000 vociferous fans had made for an intensely vibrant atmosphere that carried Wahda to victory. According to the stadium announcer there were 6,970 in attendance last night, though you could have heard a pin drop inside Al Nahyan.
It got even quieter with 18 minutes left as Ribeiro, fittingly, put the final nail in Wahda’s coffin.
He predictably started the move, feeding Senegal international Moussa Sow who sprayed a superb diagonal ball into the path of the lively Ismail Al Hammadi.
He found Lima who floated a ball over to his countryman at the back post, Ribeiro sumptuously side footing in first time on his weaker right foot.
Jorge Valdivia’s superb curler into Majed Nasser’s top left corner finally gave the home fans something to cheer, while Hamdan Al Kamali also struck a post with a driven free-kick late on, but the visitors were worthy winners.
They move up to third, three points off leaders Al Ain but with two games in hand.
Irate Al Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu has revealed he is “more and more disappointed” about the perceived lack of support for his AFC Champions League-finalists.
The heroic Red Knights return to Arabian Gulf League-action tonight with a tricky trip to Al Wahda, just five days after they secured their first spot in the decider of Asia’s premier club competition with a dramatic 4-3 aggregate triumph against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.
The game in the capital is the Romanian’s fourth in 15 days and he rallied against the call – which Clarets boss Javier Aguirre later revealed he was behind – to not move it.
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He said: “I am more and more disappointed about what we see and how they treat us. Everyone says they support you.
“But it is only just the media, because when you need help, nobody helps. Everyone forgets that our players have done a very good job for this country.
“We can play any time, even November 6 [a day before the first leg of the ACL final] if necessary. All the time, we do our job as much as we can and how much they let us.
“Wahda are improving, they are a good team and we will see how we can pass this game.”
When asked whether his anger was targeted at Wahda for not repeating the actions of future top-flight opponents Dibba Al Fujairah and Emirates Club by rescheduling, Olaroiu refused to comment.
But speaking in the build-up to the match which pits the on-song Dubai club against a host side with four points from consecutive meetings against champions Al Ain and cup kings Al Nasr, their boss Javier Aguirre stated he had the final say on the rejection.
He said: “Our team is ready for this difficult match against Al Ahli. They didn’t lose any game, but our performance was great in the last three matches so we trust our team and the match will be in our stadium.
“Our club asked me about moving the game and I said our schedule is so pressed and we have a match next Friday against Al Shaab.”
Record €17 million (Dh80m) buy Moussa Sow returns for Ahli after being ineligible for the ACL, while full-back Mohamed Al Menhali is suspended for Wahda after his red card in the goalless draw at Nasr.