Al Ahli have one hand on the Arabian Gulf League title after talisman Ahmed Khalil produced on the biggest stage once again to inflict a decisive defeat on holders Al Ain.
The dethroned champions possess a six-point advantage over the second-placed Boss with three matches left after the 2015 AFC Asian Player of the Year headed in the only goal on 38 minutes at a riotous Rashid Stadium on Thursday night.
The scenes at the final whistle told the story perfectly. The Red Knights players and staff danced for joy in front of their elated fans, while the dejected Al Ain masses collapsed in surrender.
مبروك للاهلاوية و شكرا للجمهور تستاهلون الفرحة ❤️❤️❤️❤️— حبيب الفردان (@alfardan18) April 14, 2016
A remarkable turnaround has occurred. Continued faith in coach Cosmin Olaroiu after last term’s wretched defence has been justly rewarded.
Only a momentous collapse can stop the 2013/14 winners from reclaiming their position at the top of the UAE game.
Al Ain had faced a mission improbable to turn the battle for domestic supremacy on its head even before kick-off. Victory was required to reach first place on head-to-head record, but the statistics were against them.
They had to do what AFC Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrande and Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal couldn’t and emerge victorious from Rashid Stadium, something a visiting side hadn’t done in 26 matches.
This heated rivalry has defined UAE football in recent years. From the embittered defection of Olaroiu – who received his usual dismissal in this fixture – to Dubai, to Al Ain denying their opponents a historic quadruple with 2014’s President’s Cup triumph and a incredible comeback a year later then propelling the Red Knights all the way to the 2015 ACL final.
This mutual loathing poured from the terraces, but was not reflected on the pitch this time.
In search of a crucial three points, Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic sprung several tactical surprises. A 4-1-4-1 formation was used for the first time during his two-year reign, while 12-goal centre forward Douglas and flying winger Danilo Asprilla curiously swapped positions.
This produced confusion rather than clarity, a tense first half being edged by the hosts.
Khalil had already seen an early volley go narrowly wide before he struck the merited breakthrough. Asia’s premier footballer delivered – once more -when it mattered most, nodding on Everton Ribeiro’s free-kick when criminally unmarked via Mohammed Fayez’s forehead.
His double in May had knocked the Boss out of the continent’s elite premier competition. This goal twisted the knife in again.
Ticker tape and volume erupted from the packed Rashid stands. Both the partisan home fans and the consternated ‘Ainawi’ crammed behind the goal knew a potentially pivotal moment had occurred.
Omar Abdulrahman, the UAE and Al Ain’s standout talent, was perplexed as he trudged off at the break. Much better was required if the champions were to hold onto their crown.
It almost came within nine minutes of the restart. A re-jig from Dalic had seen UAE winger Mohamed Abdulrahman come on at half-time and his diving header from close range struck the near post with goalkeeper Majed Nasser beaten.
Anxiety swept over the sold-out stadium, with 9,920 supporters and their heroes engrossed in a defining clash.
Safe in the knowledge even a draw would keep them in control of their destiny, Ahli dropped back. An omnipotent performance from centre-back Kwon Kyung-won made this task easier, while Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro looked to adroitly spring his team-mates on the counter-attack.
In possession of both the division’s meanest defence and most-lethal attack, this task would not prove beyond them.
الحمد لله ، شكرًا لكم يا اوفياء— عبـدالله النـــابوده (@asalnaboodah) April 14, 2016
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Their only worry came when Mohamed Abdulrahman, making his exclusion from the start more puzzling with each fine intervention, forced a spill from Nasser with a curling effort which a combination of Douglas, Ibrahim Diaky and Mohanad Salem could not turn home.
The end brought contrasting emotions. An unlikely slip up next Sunday from the disheartened Boss against already-relegated Al Shaab would hand the title to Ahli if they prevail in their tricky assignment at Al Nasr.
On the evidence of last night and beyond, they could have no complaints the superior side has bettered them this season.
Foes, both familiar and formidable, block the UAE’s path to World Cup 2018.
The draw for the third and final round of qualifying was a chastening experience for anyone expecting a waltz towards Russia.
The previous two Asian Cup winners in Australia and Japan look set to dominate in Group B, while the magnet which draws Arabian Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia towards the UAE retained a strong pull in Kuala Lumpur. Bar miraculous turns from inconsistent Iraq and Thailand – the lowest ranked side to progress – the UAE are among a quartet set to scrap for the two automatic berths and the right to contest for the intercontinental play-off which third spot guarantees.
This is no time for the ‘golden generation’ to lose their nerve about a long-held dream. Years of progress under the parental watch of boss Mahdi Ali has prepared them for this challenge.
The road ahead is an arduous one. No one should be under any illusion about it.
But they must go forward without fear to top the success enjoyed by entry to the London 2012 Olympics, victory at the 2013 Gulf Cup and third-place at the 2015 Asian Cup. Inimitable joy is achieveable if they believe. The highest-ranked duo look locked in for the top two. Australia were far more dominant than their 2-0, semi-final triumph against the UAE at the most recent Asian Cup suggested. The enlivening penalty-shootout win against Japan which secured that tie was also highly fortunate.
Any points for the Whites from the opening clashes against this pair on September 1 (in Japan) and September 6 (at home to Australia) should be cherished.
Just like in the second round, the threat of the Saudis looms largest. Under coach Bert van Marwijk, who led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, a Middle Eastern giant is being reawakened.
A year-long battle between the neighbours to finish third looks destined. History both old and new is against the UAE, yet talent can be on their side.
Their one-off appearance in 1990 pales in comparison to the Saudi’s four successive qualifications from 1994-2006.
2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Asian Qualifiers / Group_B UAE Matches. pic.twitter.com/k0kh12cjom— uaefa (@uaefa_ae) April 13, 2016
A disheartening 2-1 loss in Jeddah last October which featured a late penalty also made it seven successive victories for the Green Falcons and ultimately secured top spot in their pool. Last month’s 1-1 draw meant little in the UAE’s bid to progress as one of the four-best runners-up, but it can be used as a source of inspiration.
Omar Abdulrahman showed he possessed a talent unmatched in the ranks of his country of birth, a composed leveller the least his performance deserved. Lethal marksman Ali Mabkhout can only improve after injury curtailed his influence that night in Abu Dhabi, while 2015 AFC Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil and dominant centre-back Ismail Ahmed would grace any side on the continent.
Those players must not be daunted during the trip to either Riyadh or Jeddah on October 11 and the potentially-pivotal return clash on August 31, 2017. Exhibit more diffidence in those meetings and the repercussions will be fatal.
Another showdown with the Saudis is imminent and unavoidable. The moment has come for the ‘golden generation’ to prove their mettle.
EFC have over 30 elite footballers from the club’s development squad and as many travelling supporters to cheer the boys on throughout the life-changing experience for our young sportsmen.
The EFC squad faced local opposition AC Porto Salvo, FC Benfica, CF Trafaria and Seixal FC in the round-robin Lisbon Youth Cup tournament.
And following a day of competitive matches, the EFC squad travelled to Primeira Liga league leaders Benfica’s state-of-the-art training facilities where they were given a private coaching session by the club’s academy coaches.
It was a first-class experience for players, us as coaches and parents to get a real insight into how the club develop their players, using the philosophy that has nurtured some of Europe’s finest talents in the past.
The EFC squads will return on Wednesday for another coaching masterclass, which will then be followed by games against the Sporting Lisbon Youth Academy – the place where a certain Cristiano Ronaldo developed his game before being snapped up by Manchester United.
This will undoubtedly be an experience of a lifetime for these youngsters and will inspire them to continue to catapult their game to the next level.
The remainder of the trip will further expose the squads to further coaching time with Benfica, more competitive games and a lot more cultural education from an historic European city.