The boisterous Al Wasl fans flocked north en masse to Emirates Club in expectation of another win which would further fuel dreams of a surprise Arabian Gulf League title tilt.
They undertook the one-and-a-half-hour trip back to Dubai elated, courtesy of the incredible Fabio De Lima’s glorious late free-kick for the shock leaders.
An eighth goal in eight matches from the Brazilian forward made it seven wins in a row for the division’s upstarts, who could not be in ruder health ahead of Monday’s mercury test of their credentials against champions Al Ahli.
This strike heaped more pain on flailing hosts, who remain stranded in the relegation zone with nearly a third of the campaign gone.
German boss Theo Bucker would have revelled in an unforeseen show of defiance as Argentine Sebastian Saez swiftly levelled midfielder Humaid Abbas’ first goal in yellow just after the break. But it was not to last.
A near miss will provide little consolation.
The gentle vista from Emirates Club Stadium was a world away from the high rises of Dubai, with pink flecks in the sky adding to the sense of serenity as kick-off approached.
Wasl coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena sought to break the calm with an attacking 4-1-3-2 formation, eager to take the game to opponents who sat second bottom and had lost five of their seven previous league games.
Yet the breakthrough for the pace-setters – who limped home sixth under Gabriel Calderon last term – proved elusive in the first half.
A delightful throughball by De Lima played the advancing Abbas in, but his effort was smothered by goalkeeper Ibrahim Abdulla. Countryman Ronaldo Mendes’ audacious free-kick from a tight angle was then repelled.
The restart was to see the dam break. The insouciant De Lima’s nutmeg and perfect cross provided Abbas with a tap-in on 48 minutes, which was wildly celebrated on and off the pitch.
But those expecting this to signal lift-off for the red-hot visitors were in for a surprise.
The Falcons soon charged forward on the counter, with lanky Moroccan winger Mourad Batna showing excellent awareness to tee up Saez to slot home his fourth goal in eight AGL appearances since being snapped up from perennial Qatari strugglers Al Wakrah.
The hosts continued to scrap for a stalemate, led by bullocking Iraq international and ex-Wasl loanee Ahmad Ibrahim.
Tension hung in the air, which was broken in style by De Lima with five minutes left.
It is a challenge to come up with fresh superlatives for the 23-year-old. His unstoppable dead ball from 25 yards made the journey south a memorable one for the ecstatic Cheetahs faithful, who packed out half a stand.
The usual suspects of Al Jazira, Al Ain and Ahli better beware. A new contender is on the ascent.
The 47-year-old has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mahdi Ali, who was non-commital on his future following the Whites’ 2-0 victory over Iraq in their 2018 World Cup qualifier last week – a result which kept them fourth – one point behind joint-leaders Saudi Arabia and Japan – and in contention for one of the two automatic berths for Russia.
But Olaroiu warned he has no desire to bring to an end his three-year Ahli tenure and insists any approach from the UAE Football Association would be rebuffed.
“I have had questions like these asked in the past few days and today it’s the same question,” the 47-year-old, who coached Saudi Arabia at the 2015 Asian Cup, said after Saturday’s 2-0 Arabian Gulf League defeat to Al Jazira.
“But like I’ve said before, I am the Al Ahli coach and I hope to win many titles with them and I will always give my best to Al Ahli. The (UAE) national team have a good coach and they have had some good results. I think they have a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup but I think people should believe in him (Ali) to do his job.”
Olaroiu’s immediate task is to guide the reigning AGL champions back to winning ways after they were deservedly beaten by Jazira.
It was their first league loss in nearly a year and Olaroiu insists he faces a big task to ensure Ahli are in the hunt to retain their title.
“We lost this battle against Al Jazira and now we have more battles that we have to win,” Olaroiu said of his team, who sit five points behind AGL leaders Al Wasl, although they have a game in hand.
“We have to get through this situation but, in football, you get days like these.
“Of course this season will be tough and many teams have improved. This time, the teams will be more closer to each other and it will be a tight contest until the last round.”
Henk Ten Cate feels Al Jazira’s 2-0 triumph over Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ahli is proof they are on the right track to becoming one of the country’s top teams once again.
Goals from Ali Mabkhout and Khalfan Mubarak sealed the points on Saturday for the Pride of Abu Dhabi, who sit second in the AGL standings and are yet to lose in seven matches so far this season.
Having taken charge last December with the club languishing in 13th position, Ten Cate has vowed to make the President’s Cup winners among the best in the UAE, and the Dutchman is pleased his players are showing their worth.
“I said before the game that I wondered where do we stand if you compare us to teams like Al Ahli and Al Ain,” he said.
“I think we are closing the gap and are getting closer. We still have to work very hard to get where we want to be but the team is on its way. We’re still trying to get more out of the team than what it is now but I’m happy with how we played.”
The 61-year-old was particularly impressed with Mabkhout, who netted for the 10th time this term.
“Hopefully all the people who have criticised Ali Mabkhout have seen today what he’s capable of,” he said. “Maybe people will believe that he’s by far the best striker in this country.”