Diego Maradona praised Al Ain talisman Omar Abdulrahman as his Fujairah side gave the Arabian Gulf League champions-elect a mighty fright before going down to a brave 4-2 defeat in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
Maradona’s men – chasing automatic promotion back to the top-flight for the first time since 2015/16 – took a shock eighth-minute lead through promising forward Mohamed Khalfan.
UAE striker Ahmed Khalil nodded the Boss level after half an hour before Hussein El Shahat’s cross was deflected in by veteran defender Hassan Ameen a minute later to make it 2-1 to the AGL league leaders at Shabal Al Ahli Dubai Club’s Al Aweer Stadium.
The Egypt midfielder then made it 3-1 before half-time to put the Garden City side in the driving seat when he superbly controlled and half-volleyed in at the back post, but defender Khaled Abdullah netted early in the second period to keep the Wolves snarling at the Al Ain door.
In an even second half, Brazilian forward Caio rounded goalkeeper Saleh Sadeq to make the game safe in stoppage time.
Argentina icon Maradona praised the spirit of his side and singled out Boss maestro Abdulrahman for special mention.
“In the first place I want to thank my players for putting up such a fight against a champion team like Al Ain,” said Maradona, the former Napoli and Barcelona magician.
“This was a big game for us against a really big team. And if at all there was one player who made all the difference, it was Omar [Abdulrahman].
“We are a small team and my one instruction to the players was to ensure that Omar doesn’t get the ball. But we were up against a quality team that is capable of winning everything including the Arabian Gulf League and every other trophy this season.”
Despite the disappointment of going out, Maradona, 57, said his players must use the defeat to bounce back into the big time next season.
“For us, this match has been an experience that we can learn from,” said the 1986 World Cup-winner.
“If you ask me now, I think Fujairah lacked the experience. We came here with an unbeaten record, but our achievement counted for nothing before a high-level team. Maybe we could have done well to play some other team. Tonight we lost to a champion side.
“If we do make it to Division One next season, you will find our team working the same way and matching the best due to the experience we have gained today.”
Al Ain counterpart Zoran Mamic was full of praise for the Wolves’ brave performance and was thankful his team escaped without any injuries or being taken to extra time.
“I will not broadcast a secret if I told you that I am very happy to get out of the game without any injuries,” said the Croatian.
“Ahmed Khalil got a kick in the ankle, but it is in a good position and he will return in the next game because he is strong and is a physically fit player.”
He added: “We were lucky that the game did not go to extra time, even though Fujairah suffered in the final moments of the game in a decline in fitness.
“I have a good experience in dealing with cup matches. When I was a trainer for Dynamo Zagreb, I met two second and third division teams and we could only win them in added time instead of the 90 minutes.”
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