The Clarets raced into a two-goal lead on the half-hour mark at an electric Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Thursday. UAE winger Tareq Ahmed curled a beautiful shot into the bottom corner against the run of play, before Argentine predator Sebastian Tagliabue placed an unstoppable header home for his record-breaking 14th goal in the 2017/18 edition.
A rollercoaster second period was sparked by Brazilian playmaker Ronaldo Mendes’ 61st-minute header for the Cheetahs to shorten their disadvantage. Wahda then saw both full-backs sent off, Ahmed Rashid walking for two yellow cards and Mohammed Al Menhali seeing red for stepping on Abdulla Saleh courtesy of VAR.
But despite their numerical advantage and six minutes of additional time being played, Wasl could not end their eight-year trophy drought.
SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS
Steady work over several seasons, an alien concept in the capricious Middle East, has continued to reap rewards for Wahda.
A pair of AG Cup wins now sandwich 2016/17’s President’s Cup.
There has been a change of management in this period as Romania’s Laurentiu Reghecampf replaced Mexico’s Javier Aguirre last summer. But the decision to consistently make minor changes to the playing roster has consistently delivered trophies.
Success breeds success. This is why Reghecampf is right to believe a four-point gap to Arabian Gulf League-leaders Al Ain can still be closed, as well as a rescue job pulled off in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR RODOLFO?
A miserable 2018 continues to plumb new depths for Wasl.
It’s now just two wins in 13 matches since the end of January. Injuries bite hard in the small Cheetahs squad, but this was not an excuse on Thursday.
Antipathy has grown towards coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena after he failed to rouse his troops, despite playing more than 15 minutes against nine men. This is an alarming state of play when your contract expires in June.
The 42-year-old had rehabilitated his managerial reputation with last term’s shock second place in the league. Those memories risk being forgotten.
MOVE AWAY FROM MATAR
Amid the celebrations for Wahda, it is important to centre on an important changing of the guard.
Ismail Matar is arguably the most-important figure in the club’s 44-year history. The idea of the 34-year-old forward being an unused substitute in a showpiece was unthinkable even 12 months ago.
Now, it barely registers as an afterthought. An association stretching back more than two decades may soon end.
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A late disagreement between organisers the Pro League Committee and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club about rental fees for their Rashid Stadium saw Thursday’s showpiece moved to the Garden City on Tuesday. This change meant the Clarets head back to the site of March 1’s humiliating 6-2 loss to Al Ain that has caused serious damage to hopes of lifting a first Arabian Gulf League title since 2009/10.
But speaking in Wednesday’s pre-match press conference, Reghecampf was not unduly concerned.
“There is no pressure on the players,” said the Romanian, who suffered a family bereavement this week.
“Hazza bin Zayed Stadium is a beautiful setting. We have to rejoice in the final and not think about the past.”
Wahda lifted this trophy back in 2015/16 and then added the next season’s President’s Cup. In contrast, opponents Wahda are enduring an eight-year trophy drought and their recent collapse in form includes one win during eight matches.
Boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena challenged his beleaguered troops to “show the strong side” against Wahda.
He said: “This a very important game and both teams deserve to be in the final.
“We have to show the strong side of Al Wasl to win the title.”
Wasl have never featured in the AG Cup final before, while Wahda have won one and lost one.
At the hastily rearranged venue of Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the Clarets will be looking to make it three-successive seasons with a trophy. Their opponents are enduring both an eight-year drought and an alarming collapse in form.
CAN CHEETAHS TAME TAGLIABUE?
The Arabian Gulf League’s premier gunslinger is showing no signs he’s about to run out of ammunition.
Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue has scored an incredible nine goals in his last four matches, including six of his side’s eight goals during the semi-final slaying of Dibba Al Fujairah. This form has ensured an extension to the 33-year-old’s rapidly expiring contract will be imminently sealed.
Of more immediate concern, the Argentine with 103 AGL goals since 2013 will be smelling blood.
Wasl have kept two clean sheets in their last 19 fixtures, plus will definitely be missing UAE call-up Abdulrahman Ali and potentially skipper Waheed Ismail at centre-back. After already scoring four past them in three meetings this term, target practice awaits.
يوم واحد يفصلنا عن #نهائي_كأس_الخليج_العربي... احجز تذكرتك الآنhttps://t.co/dL4v8CcrFY— Arabian Gulf League (@AGLeague) March 28, 2018
One day separates us from the #AGCupFinal... book your ticket now@AlWahdaFCC @AlWaslSC @HBZstadium pic.twitter.com/7CiAXDPi5C
RODOLFO MUST FIND ANSWERS
Even though there has been a crushing inevitability to Wasl’s decline, the rate of descent is still alarming.
From being right in the mix with – now champions-elect – Al Ain and Wahda in the battle for AGL glory by late January, they’ve since gone on to win just two of their last 12 fixtures in all competitions.
The Cheetahs must be applauded for their prudence in the transfer market. But a failure to add ballast in the last three windows is being felt now, as injuries and bans wrack up.
The time has come for coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena to work out how to make the most of what he’s got.
SEARCH FOR SILVERWARE
The psychology of this match is intriguing.
Wasl haven’t tasted domestic success since their AGL and President’s Cup double of 2006/07. Their last title of any note was 2010’s GCC Champions League.
Triumphs in the 2015/16 AG Cup and 2016/17 President’s Cup created a sense that Wahda were adroitly building towards AGL glory this term. These dreams died with a 6-2 thrashing at the Hazza earlier this month.
Wasl are an inferior outfit, the brilliance of Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima aside.
But victory this week would resonate deep within. Can this desire tip the balance?