Al Ahli’s name looks set to live on for a little while longer at least, after they escaped from Saudi Arabia on Monday night with their 2017 AFC Champions League hopes fully intact.
One of the most tumultuous weeks in UAE football’s history saw them head into this round-of-16, first leg on the back of a shock merger with Al Shabab and Dubai Club – creating the rather clunky Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.
Hardly ideal preparation for a trip to their namesakes from Jeddah, who were undefeated against Al Ain in the groups and, still, have never lost a knockout game on home soil in the competition.
But boosted by the absence of the host’s deadly Syria centre forward Omar Al Somah because of injury and the return of the redoubtable spirit which carried the Red Knights to defeat in 2015’s showpiece, they head back to Dubai next Monday with an away goal in their possession and the score tied.
UAE centre midfielder Khamis Esmail slotted in a gift-wrapped second effort in 30 ACL run-outs, only for stand-in striker Abdulfattah Asiri to show fleet of foot and a rocket of a shot to level before half-time.
Ahli then defended resolutely to maintain control of the tie during just their second-ever knockout run.
Confidence burnished by finishing top of Group A, the visitors started the better at a King Abdullah Sports City disappointingly below capacity. Senegal striker Makhete Diop failed to force in a fifth goal in six Asian appearances as he headed Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro’s inviting cross over.
A fortuitous opener was soon to arrive. Ribeiro hung in a deep free-kick from which goalkeeper Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem and Iraq utility man Saad Abdul-Amir clashed, giving Esmail an open goal to slot into.
Ahli Jeddah soon levelled as Asiri burned off UAE defender Walid Abbas and smashed home.
Yet the hosts could not build any momentum. The chances which then went begging for them came from Egypt full-back Mohamed Abdel-Shafy’s rushed volley and Greece winger Giannis Fetfatzidis’ dragged shot into the side-netting.
A 59-year history as ‘Al Ahli’ will cease once their Asian adventure ends. On this evidence, that day is still some time away.
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