Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima’s sensational curled strike in the 26th minute saw the Cheetahs look poised to celebrate an enlivening victory against Qatar’s Al Sadd upon the end of their 10-year wait to play in Asia’s elite club competition. But the introduction of Baghdad Bounedjah off the substitute’s bench turned the Group C opener around, the Algeria centre forward decisively completing his brace on the stroke of second-half injury-time.
This reversal saw the devastated Cheetahs exit Zabeel Stadium with tails between their legs.
For ex-Argentina left-back Arruabarrena, his troops must instantly snap out of this slump with the next 10 days witnessing Friday’s decider against Bur Dubai rivals Al Nasr for a spot in the Arabian Gulf Cup’s semi-finals, Tuesday’s second continental date at Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and next weekend’s resumption of their Arabian Gulf League title push at lowly Dibba Al Fujairah.
He said: “When we fall, we have to stand back up again.
“After the League Cup we play in the Champions League again, and then the Arabian Gulf League continues, but like I said, we will learn because for almost all of us, this was our first time playing here [ACL].”
A lack of experience was a major concern for the ex-Boca Juniors player and tactician. Sadd are two-time Asian kings, boast Spain icon Xavi in their ranks and hot prospects such as Akram Afif have been plying their trade in Europe.
“We made a good first half but in the second we lost possession, made two mistakes and lost the game,” said Arruabarrena.
“From the beginning we said they were more experienced than us and had different players.
“For almost all our players this is the first time they have played in this competition, but they will learn from playing the best teams in Asia. We do not have too many players, but this is not the moment to speak.”
Wasl will need to avoid defeat at Nasaf’s Qarshi Markazi Stadium to boost hopes of avoiding a repeat of 2008’s group-stage elimination.
With each passing performance, evidence grows that Al Jazira have mined another source of Asian football’s rarest commodity – a home-grown goal scorer.
In a 2018 AFC Champions League-opener against Qatar’s Al Gharafa that featured Netherlands superstar Wesley Sneijder, 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout of the UAE and prolific Iran centre forward Mehdi Taremi, 22-year-old forward Ahmed Al Attas provided the star turn.
Bursting with confidence imbued by reaching a career-best tally of five strikes in 11 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League games, a bouncing ball 40 yards out was met with a ferocious half-volley to make it 3-1 to the committed Pride of Abu Dhabi in Monday’s eventual 3-2 win.
A breakthrough season had its landmark moment. Now, it is up to both player and country to ensure his precipitous trajectory extends to being a weapon of mass destruction at January 2019’s Asian Cup.
The UAE are unique among Asian nations in being blessed with two proven, elite strikers in Mabkhout and 2015 AFC Player of the Year, Ahmed Khalil. A third option isn’t being greedy – it could be the difference between failure or success next year on home soil.
Yet, the coming man has been overlooked throughout Alberto Zaccheroni’s four-month Whites tenure. This cannot continue.
Always respected for his work-rate and technical acumen, question marks had existed about whether a ruthless edge could be added to Al Attas’ play.
This worry is repeated across a continent in which prolific, indigenous marksman are few and far between.
Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei notched 11 more times than his nearest compatriot in the 2017 Chinese Super League and Al Nassr’s Mohammad Al Sahlawi is back among the goals in the 2017/18 Saudi Professional League after two miserable campaigns. The top-scoring Australian in the ongoing A-League, Newcastle Jets’ Andrew Nabbout, has less than half the tally of Sydney FC’s 20-goal Bobo.
Al Attas had struck only seven goals in 34 AGL matches from 2013/14-2016/17.
But a growing importance is detailed by the fact his nine 2017/18 starts is one more than he had totalled throughout the previous period (eight) in its entirety.
His marked improvement is a credit to himself and his club. Now, it’s time for the UAE to bear the fruits of this labour.
Lethal Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima’s superb opener for Al Wasl was not enough to prevent a losing return to the AFC Champions League after 10 years away, substitute Baghdad Bounedjah turning the game around with his late brace in Al Sadd’s painful 2-1 victory.
In a tight Group C-opener, De Lima brilliantly found the bottom corner in the 26th minute. Algeria centre forward Bounedjah then emerged to convert Spain icon Xavi’s cutting pass and punish awful defending on the stroke of injury time.
Here, are the major talking points:
NAIVE CHEETAHS GET CLAWED
Wasl coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena will regret the accuracy of his pre-match prediction.
The ex-Argentina left-back noted a glaring disparity in experience to the QNB Stars League’s second-placed team – he was proved right.
Wasl’s thin, top-heavy squad lacked the nous to prevent Xavi wrestling control from their grasp after a bright start. Sadd replacements Akram Afif and Bounedjah also excelled.
You can possess attacking talent to envy, but this elite level requires much more.
XAVI’S TIMELESS ABILITY
The near 6,000-strong crowd at Zabeel Stadium were witnessing some of the final acts in one of football’s best careers.
At 38-years old and with retirement assured this summer, Xavi’s role is now to provide constant direction and guidance to his team rather than consistent excellence.
Not that the man who played 767 times for Barcelona and 133 times for Spain cannot still influence proceedings from midfield. His inspired assist for Bounedjah’s 79th-minute leveller dissected a packed penalty box.
WASL’S DECADE OF CHANGE
Even in defeat, Wasl must reflect on how far they’ve come.
The Cheetahs dug their claws into the 1980s, winning four of their seven Arabian Gulf League crowns.
But a tumultuous few years were witnessed between May 21, 2008’s 1-1 draw against Iran’s Saipa in the ACL and Tuesday night’s continental return versus Sadd.
A steep decline was witnessed after 2006/07’s last title triumph; controversial Argentina icon Maradona turning them into a circus act in 2011/12 and relegation even being flirted with in 2013/14. They should not forget this.