The players missing as Al Ahli began their Arabian Gulf Cup campaign yesterday were of far greater interest than the narrow 2-0 triumph against Emirates Club.
Record-breaking €17 million (Dh70m) target Moussa Sow was the talk of a punishingly-humid Rashid Stadium. But the Senegal forward was nowhere in sight 24 hours after he paid an emotional farewell to the Fenerbahce masses in Istanbul, official announcement of his impending switch still to arrive before kick-off.
There was also the prospect of the 10 established stars away on international duty, robbing Red Knights boss Cosmin Olaroiu of his finest UAE players – both senior and junior – and unwanted winger Oussama Assaidi to Morocco. With the visiting Falcons minus injured attacking midfielder Brett Holman, this run out in the domestic’s game third-most important competition felt distinctly second rate.
But there were still sprinklings of star dust to be found, summer buy Lima continuing to look a sound addition as he artfully volleyed home his fourth goal in three competitive appearances on 41 minutes to light up a match which will not live long in the collective memory.
The €7m (Dh28.4m) purchase from Benfica and countryman Everton Ribeiro looked like they were playing a different sport for much of the contest. Their inter-play and understanding delighted, a linesman’s flag and some wayward finishing preventing them making the margin of victory wider prior to defensive midfielder Humaid Abbas’ 90th-minute rebound.
This was a comedown from the 8-1 Arabian Gulf League-opener against Fujairah and 1-0 AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg at Naft Tehran. But that is what the AG Cup does.
Throw Sow – a player given a hero’s send-off at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium on Sunday after 52 goals in 107 appearances plus two Super Lig titles since January 2012 – into this mix and a repeat of the disappointment witnessed at Ahli in 2014/15 seems impossible.
Emirates barely got a kick all night, one darting run from Brazilian forward Rodrigo Pimpao on 20 minutes ending with a disappointing lashed finish. Playmaker Ribeiro had already repeated a similar act by that point in the other half.
The goal when it came was delightful. A swift counter-attack lead to a pin-point cross from returning UAE full-back Abdelaziz Sanqour, his centre being gleefully sidefooted in by the on-rushing Lima.
The second half meandered by, Lima being correctly flagged offside when his early header crept in and Pimpao fizzing a late effort from 20 yards wide of the post.
All hope of an unlikely equaliser died in injury time, midfielder Nawaf Mubarak’s free-kick being pushed onto the crossbar but not away from the waiting Abbas to head home.
Al Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu declined to discuss the club’s landmark pursuit of Fenerbahce forward Moussa Sow on Sunday.
The Turkish giants released a statement on Friday which said they had accepted an Arabian Gulf League-record €17million (Dh70m) package to bring the Senegal international to the Rashid Stadium.
The Red Knights have refused to comment on the matter since and their Romanian boss kept up this stance in his pre-match conference ahead of tonight’s Arabian Gulf Cup opener against Emirates Club (19:20 start).
“I am not talking about the transfer section,” the Romanian said, while shrugging his shoulders. “I work only with the team and the players I have.”
Sow is expected to finalise his move on Monday after spending the weekend in Dubai undergoing a medical. This will see him complete a fearsome four-player foreign quartet which features Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro, South Korean defensive midfielder Kwon Kyung-won and Brazilian striker and fellow summer arrival Lima.
Ahli head into their imminent home match boosted by their midweek 1-0 AFC Champions League, first-leg triumph at Naft Tehran but with a severely-depleted squad because of international commitments.
With the club’s brightest local talents included in the list of 10 players unavailable, Olaroiu has been left to select from a threadbare squad.
He said: “This is not the best competition for us because we are missing 10 players through national team duty. Other teams don’t have this many players in the national teams, so will not be as affected.
“Despite this, we will treat this competition as seriously as we can. It’s an opportunity for other players and youngsters to show they can become main team players – we will try our best to prepare for this game.
“Emirates were good last season and only lost their Arabian Gulf League opener this season (narrowly) 2-1 away to Al Nasr, so we have to treat this game seriously.”
One player who could enjoy an emotional return to duty in the Group A-clash is Brazilian forward Ciel. The 33-year-old has not played competitively since he suffered an awful double ankle fracture in the club’s opening 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League fixture against Sharjah last September.
The ex-Al Shabab player is unwanted this term, Sow’s impending purchase pushing him further out of the reckoning. But as Oussama Assaidi is with Morocco, a rare opportunity has opened up for him.
“He needs a little bit more confidence with his leg,” Olaroiu said.
Al Ain fought back from 2-0 down to rescue a point from a 2-2 draw with Al Jazira in their Arabian Gulf Cup opener.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi looked to be on course for all three points in Group B last night as they led thanks to first half goals from former Juventus frontman Mirko Vucinic and Brazilian summer signing Thiago Neves.
The Boss, however, struck twice in nine second half minutes, the first from summer signing Ryan Babel’s penalty following Juma Abdulla’s pull in the box, the other from Emirati striker Saeed Al Kathiri’s bullet header.
There were goals and cards galore at Al Nahyan Stadium where Sebastian Tagliabue’s hat-trick rescued a point for Al Wahda in a 3-3 draw with Fujairah. As well as three goals apiece, each team also finished with 10 men.
Hassan Maatouk fired the visitors in front after just seven minutes, Tagliabue responding just before half-time from the penalty spot.
Patrick Eze’s quickfire double then put Fujairah in the driving seat before Ivan Hasek’s men were reduced to 10 men with Abdulaziz Ismaeil receiving a straight red.
Wahda instantly capitalised, Tagliabue again netting from the spot in the 70th minute. Five minutes later it was all square, Tagliabue completing his hat-trick as he volleyed in substitute Khalid Bawazir’s cross.
The drama was still not complete, however, as Salem Sultan also departed after collecting two bookings. Al Wasl eased to a 2-0 win at home against newly-promoted Al Shaab thanks to goals from new signing Edgar Bruno and Yaser Salem.