Al Wahda supremo Javier Aguirre insists belief is coursing through the club that they can fight for the Arabian Gulf League title, ahead of Friday’s opening fixture.
The Clarets haven’t lifted the trophy in seven years, but after recovering from a dreadful start to claim third last season, the Mexican and his players are daring to dream.
“Yes, indeed. Finishing third last year was fantastic, but everyone at the club, my team and myself, believe we can now fight for the title along with teams like Al Ahli and Al Ain,” said the 57-year-old ahead of Wahda’s clash at newly-promoted Hatta.
Wahda won a maiden Arabian Gulf Cup last season, beating Al Shabab 1-0 in the final, and also qualified for the play-offs of the 2017 AFC Champions League.
Their headline addition has been Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak, who was purchased from Turkey’s Bursaspor. Midfielders Tariq Ahmed and Nasser Abdulhadi were also recruited from Dibba Al Fujairah.
Their quest to reach the AGL summit begins tomorrow with a trip to Hatta. Aguirre is wary of the threat posed by the First Division League champions, but is only interested in one result.
He said: “We respect a lot Hatta, they deserve to be here, but our idea is to go for the three points.
“In the first five to seven games last season we lost many points and at the end of the season it cost us. (However), all my team is healthy, I have no excuses.”
In tomorrow’s other games, Shabab host Sharjah and new boys Ittihad Kalba go to Dibba.
Meanwhile, Al Jazira appear set to add Saudi Arabia midfielder Salman Al Faraj to their squad after Al Hilal chairman Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Fahd revealed a transfer was close.
Al Faraj, 27, has been strongly linked with a Dh35 million switch throughout this week. A deal now is reportedly in place which will see the 25-times-capped international take the place of South Korea’s Park Jong-woo as the Asian-qualified player in the four-man foreign quota.
News about the move became concrete when Sheikh Abdul Aziz tweeted: “Salman Al Faraj is headed to Al Jazira.”
Previously this summer, the Pride of Abu Dhabi have bought Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa, UAE right-back Mohammed Fawzi and midfielders Salem Abdulla from Al Wasl and Humaid Ahmed from Fujairah.
Al Ahli emerged as the victors from an eventful first running of the Arabian Gulf Super Cup on foreign soil, Rodrigo Lima’s second-half penalty proving the difference against Al Jazira as both sides finished with 10 men on the pitch.
Lima, 33, struck the winner on 69 minutes in Cairo’s 30 June Stadium after emerging midfielder Waleed Hussain was felled by centre-back Fares Juma’s rash challenge.
The match was already 10 v 10 at that stage, with Pride of Abu Dhabi full-back Salim Rashid and UAE international Habib Fardan both seeing red in either half.
New signing Mohammed Fawzi had struck an own goal just before the break to put the Red Knights ahead, with Brazil playmaker Thi-ago Neves’ rasping injury-time effort proving nothing but a consolation as the Red Knights lifted the trophy for a fourth time.
The 16th running of the showpiece event between the Arabian Gulf League champions (Ahli) and President’s Cup holders (Jazira) had been moved to Egypt in a bid to increase the exposure of UAE football.
A healthy crowd was present in the Egyptian metropolis last night to witness this groundbreaking contest, which sprung to life around the half-hour mark.
2015 AFC Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil went down after being tripped by 22-year-old prospect Rashid outside the box, with the referee producing a red card in response.
The UAE forward then soon sparked the breakthrough, strike partner Lima’s goal-bound shot forcing ex-Al Ain defender Fawzi to erroneously slide the ball into his net after an incisive throughball.
Numerical parity was then restored on 61 minutes, Fardan being uncharacteristically given his marching orders after a high boot on Mohamed Jamal. But this didn’t stop Lima from doubling up from 12 yards less than 10 minutes later.
Neves then managed to smash in on the angle, although this strike came far too late for his club.
UAE veteran Ismail Ahmed has warned his team-mate they must “seize every opportunity” to make their dream of World Cup-qualification come true.
The 33-year-old performed doggedly yet again for his country on Tuesday but could do nothing as Tim Cahill predatorarily tapped home the only goal during Australia’s narrow triumph at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. This saw the Whites fail to build on an incredible 2-1 win in Japan last week as the third-and-final qualifying round for Russia 2018 began in memorable fashion.
A year-long battle to gain automatic entry through a top-two finish in Group B or finish third and scrap to contest the inter-confeferation play-off is now under way. For Ahmed, every match now must be maximised to see the nation make a second-ever appearance in the sport’s grandest tournament.
He said: “Our team had more than two opportunities to score (against Australia). In such games, if we don’t seize every opportunity, redemption will be difficult and we will naturally be at a disadvantage.
“Despite all that, the Australian national team did not pose a real threat to our goal except a few times where they scored once.
“The weather did not make things easy given the high levels of humidity, but that is no excuse. We should have played in full force to win the game.
“We are capable of coming back in full force to the competition because redemption is still possible in the remaining eight games.”
An enduring image from the game was match-winner Cahill comforting a distraught Omar Abdulrahman upon the final whistle. The 36-year-old – who scored his 48th international goal in 92 appearances – revealed he told the Whites stars they still had everything to play for.
He said: “The UAE played really well, we’ve a lot of respect for them, a great footballing team.
“I said to the players, ‘put your head up, try as finish as high as you can in the group and take what you did against Japan and today and improve’, like they have every year.”
A showdown between the UAE and neighbours Saudi Arabia for third spot now seems inevitable. Bert van Marwijk’s men have so far required late penalties to win against also-rans Thailand and Iraq, meaning they go into next month’s resumption with a three-point advantage.
With the UAE travelling to the Kingdom on October 11, coach Mahdi Ali was refusing to panic about the deficit.
He said: “It is too early for this type of thinking. We didn’t get the result we needed today, but it is still very early.”
He added: “I thank the fans for their support today.
“It was a great support from them and they kept cheering until the end. I thank them and I apologise for the result.
“I wish that the team will give better and we will celebrate our qualification to the World Cup in this stadium during the future.”
Prior to the aforementioned match, the UAE will host Thailand in Abu Dhabi on October 6.