ACL: Clarets gain first point but qualifying looks bleak

Matt Jones 15/03/2017
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Prolific Al Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue celebrates his goal

Al Wahda clung onto their first AFC Champions League point in six years but were lucky to do so against the battling 10 men of Al Hilal.

The Saudi Arabian giants, Group D leaders, seemed to be reinvigorated after the harsh dismissal of goalscorer Nawaf Al Abid on the hour mark and will feel they did enough to take all three points.

Only a couple of brilliant reaction saves from Clarets goalkeeper Rashed Ali ensured Javier Aguirre’s side kept their hands on a point as well their slim hopes of making the knockout stages.

The 2007 semi-finalists had battled back from going a goal behind inside five minutes through fine Sebastian Tagliabue and Balasz Dzsudzsak strikes, only to be pegged back by former Al Dhafra forward Omar Khrbin before surviving a late onslaught.

“It was a tough game. Al Hilal are a very good team with good players and played well even with 10 men,” said Wahda coach Javier Aguirre.

“We didn’t deserve to equalise in the first half but we were better in the second half and had chances, scored another goal, and I was calm.

“They scored and after that we knew we had to win so there was a bit of disorder. Everyone wanted to score and we gave them chances to score. We tried to win and we almost lost.”

Hilal coach Ramon Diaz, the former Argentina international, was proud of the spirit his side showed.

“It was tough in the second half and dramatic,” said the former Paraguay coach.

“The first half we scored and took control of the game. One counter attack and they scored. We came back and even with 10 players we were organised and created opportunities and could have won the game.”

The visitors capitalised on a lively opening. Salem Sultan failed to cut out Mohammed Al Burayk’s low cross and Saudi international Al Abid gleefully tucked home.

Wahda weathered the storm though and after Dzsudzsak’s rasping free-kick was spectacularly tipped over by Abdullah Al Maiouf, Wahda were thrown a lifeline in first half injury time via a superb equaliser from their talisman Tagliabue.

Nothing looked on as right back Mohammed Al Menhali pumped a long ball forward, but the Argentine gave chase and beat Abdullah Al Hafith for pace before rifling a fierce shot under goalkeeper Al Maiouf under pressure from the covering Osama Hawsawi.

A lifeline turned into a lead nine minutes into the second half when Dzsudzsak raised the roof of Al Nahyan Stadium with a stunning shot that almost took the roof of the net off.

Hilal failed to clear Matar’s free-kick and the Hungary skipper fired in via a deflection.

Wahda’s cause was aided further on the hour mark when Al Abid was dismissed for collecting a second yellow card. It was a laughable decision, with referee Ryuji Sato deeming he had brought down Al Menhali.

The smiles on Wahda faces didn’t last long though as the 10 men equalised. Former Western Knights attacker Khrbin keeping his composure to net after a delightful first-time ball from Abdullah Otayf.

From that point on the depleted visitors took a grip of the game, looking extremely dangerous on the break as Wahda went in search of the three points realistically required for progression from the group.

The Saudis survived a goalmouth scramble before Ali came to the fore, brilliantly thwarting Hilal substitute Salem Al Dawsari after he danced his way through two tackles.

Even better followed as he clawed away Otayf’s fierce effort headed for the top corner.

There was still time for more drama as the game entered stoppage time. One of the Hilal coaching staff was then sent to the stands for remonstrating with the linesman before Salman Al Faraj sent a glancing header just wide and Al Dawsari’s cross evaded two team-mates inside the six yard box.

As the final whistle sounded, Wahda would have felt relief at hanging on, but will wonder how they failed to finish off the 10 men.

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COMMENT: Why Jazira will stay top AGL

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Al Jazira host Al Ain on Wednesday night.

A crack has emerged in Al Jazira’s imperious visage.

Saturday’s defiant, late rally from champions Al Ahli saw them inflict just a second defeat of the Arabian Gulf League season, in the process checking the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s procession to a first title since 2010/11. With last term’s runners-up and the beaten 2016 AFC Champions League finalists Al Ain visiting Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday night, a defining moment has arrived.

A potential 10-point advantage over the Boss and Al Wasl has been cut to Ahli being just six in arrears, with six games to play. The trio are now in punching range, a midweek blow putting them in the position to deliver a fatal strike.

Will the characteristic frailties associated with the division’s great entertainers re-emerge which coach Henk ten Cate has so expertly suppressed during his year in charge, or was the reversal in Dubai just a blip on the path to memorable success?

This current Jazira squad have wildly defied expectations to breeze through 2016/17. Both recent history, their immediate opponents’ failings and a fearsome attack should mean they have enough to weather the storm.

Since the UAE’s top flight turned professional in 2008/09, genuine fights at the top of the table have not emerged. The average winning margin at the end of the season between first and second is a chasmic 11 points.

Jazira themselves were involved in the narrowest scrap, capital rivals Al Wahda ending up seven points ahead in 2009/10.

This points to the leaders’ advantage growing, rather than being reined in.

Jazira also currently top the scoring charts, their 54 goals producing a healthy advantage of nine over Wasl.

This has been a determinant of success in the same era, five out of the eight champions boasting the most-lethal attack.

This cutting edge was glaring when Jazira and Al Ain last met. The toothless Boss were ruthlessly picked apart on the counter-attack during January’s 3-1 win; Ailton Almeida, Ali Mabkhout and Leonardo all getting on the scoresheet.

With Saudi Arabia flop Nasser Al Shamrani doing precious little to impress since his inauspicious debut on that night, it’s doubtful Al Ain have the firing power to make it successive losses on Wednesday.

This situation is in stark contrast to the Pride of Abu Dhabi.

Mabkhout continues to emerge as a striker of real renown in Asia. He currently tops the scoring charts on 24, three ahead of Wasl’s Fabio De Lima.

For Al Ain, Brazilian forward Caio with 11 is their most prolific. The supreme creative powers of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman are made defunct by the profligacy which otherwise surrounds him.

It is important to note how far Ten Cate has taken his club.

He inherited a relegation-threatened rabble from apathetic predecessor Abel Braga, a man out of steps with how far the UAE game had developed since his trophy-laden three-year spell ended upon the club’s last AGL triumph.

Strong buys have been made. Right-back Mohammed Fawzi has added poise, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa keeps the team ticking along and Brazilian forward Leonardo looks the pick.

But Ten Cate’s greatest feat has been engendering a team spirit which had degenerated under Braga.

This belief should ensure they hold their nerve and get the requisite result against Al Ain.

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