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.