Al Jazira’s season of chaos could yet deliver a historic finish.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi gained control of their rollercoaster first AFC Champions League knockout tie since 2014 thanks to youngster Khalifa Al Hammadi’s rousing headed winner deep, deep into second-half injury time against imposing Persian Gulf Pro League holders Persepolis.
The home bench erupted and Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa slipped into the arms of coach Henk ten Cate in an explosion of emotion.
What a moment for the 19-year-old defender to break his career duck.
This was an incredible show of character from the hosts at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
They first rebounded from one-cap Iran centre forward Ali Alipour’s deft headed opener just before the break.
Defiance was then required after the actions of Japanese referee Hiroyuki Kimura and his fellow officials appeared to wipe out a vital advantage.
UAE striker Ali Mabkhout – who else? – had provided the second-half catalyst.
With Jazira buoyant after recovering to take a 2-1 lead through the aforementioned UAE striker and Romarinho’s superb efforts, a controversial penalty call for handball with 10 minutes left from prone UAE prospect Mohammed Al Attas caused ructions.
Salt was thrown on open wounds when Ali Khaseif’s athletic spot-kick save from Godwin Mensha was ruled out for encroachment by the assistant referee. The aim of the substitute – who replaced Alipour – would not falter on a second occasion.
But past the five allocated minutes, Boussoufa swung in an unnerving set-piece from out wide to break the 2018’s edition meanest defence for a third time. Belief now abounds.
The small matter of escaping the lion’s den provided by the near 80,000-capacity Azadi Stadium awaits on Monday. Few leave Asia’s fiercest arena as victors, yet alone ones who’ve conceded two away goals.
But this patchwork Jazira matched European royalty Real Madrid for 81 minutes in December’s Club World Cup on home soil. They can exceed the fragmented sum of their parts.
Do so again and a landmark berth in the quarter-finals will see this group earn a special spot in the capital outfit’s annals.
A tense round-of-16, first leg of few chances appeared set for a damaging 1-0 reversal after 19-goal PGPL top scorer Alipour decisively nodded in a late first-half cross from Iran left winger Vahid Amiri.
Heads have gone down with frequency this term at the deposed Arabian Gulf League champions. No wonder when institutional tumult has followed at every turn.
But not this time.
How could they after Ten Cate’s impassioned “all or nothing” pre-match proclamation?
Shortly after the interval, Mabkhout skipped past a pair of Persepolis challenges and unflinchingly found the bottom corner to bring hope. This also extended the most-productive continental campaign of his celebrated career to five goals in six run-outs.
Even better followed.
A cute pass from Mabkhout was latched onto by onrushing Brazilian forward Romarinho. He calmly slotted past giant Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
A sting in the tail came when Oman centre-back Mohammed Al Musalami’s loose clearance struck the unaware Mohamed Al Attas’ arm. Mensha did the rest.
Yet, you cannot discount this Jazira. Just ask Al Hammadi.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has a healthy respect for 2018 AFC Champions League rivals Al Duhail rather than fear, ahead of an intriguing round-of-16 clash between dominant domestic double winners.
A 2-1 victory for the 10-man Boss against Al Wasl on Thursday saw them add the President’s Cup to an Arabian Gulf League title claimed with a round to spare. This was the first time the UAE’s most-decorated club had achieved this feat during 50 years of existence.
Knockout opponents Duhail have registered even better results in a relentless first season since last April’s merger with El Jaish. They became just the fourth side in the ACL’s history to win all six group matches, while they were undefeated throughout the 2017/18 QNB Stars League and also took the Qatar Cup.
These achievements tee up a tantalising two-legged clash, beginning with Tuesday’s meeting at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
“We also made a great season and won the double,” said Mamic, whose troops drew their opening four Group D-fixtures to come home second. “I am not scared, but I have lots of respect for Al Duhail.
“This is because they have had a great season, they’ve won the double and did very good in the group stage.
“But this is only respect. We also have a very ,very good team that is full of quality.”
Mamic’s achievements in his first full season at the helm have been made more impressive by the fact they ended a near three-year trophy drought.
Brazilian forward Caio expanded on the confidence buzzing around the dressing room.
He said: “I feel good and the whole team feels very good. This is because we took two titles.”
Suspensions to influential Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat and UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem hamper the Al Ain case.
“I have to think about replacements,” said a pragmatic Mamic.
“This is the normal law in football. Thanks to God, we have good replacements.”
Duhail will be without electric Tunisia winger Youssef Msakni after last month’s serious knee injury ended his World Cup 2018 dream.
Arruabarrena, 42, worked wonders since his June 2016 arrival at an outfit who operate within their financial means. Finishes of second and third in the Arabian Gulf League represent the best of an otherwise trying professional era, while this term witnessed narrow defeats in the Arabian Gulf Cup and President’s Cup showpieces.
But the former Argentina, Boca Juniors and Villarreal left-back’s startling progress has gone without appreciation at Zabeel Stadium.
“Following a meeting with the technical body, the football club announces the non-renewal of the contract with team trainer Rodolfo Arruabarrena and his associate technical staff at the end of their current contract period,” the Cheetahs tweeted on Sunday.
This move was met by incredulity on Instagram from their Brazilian striker Caio Canedo.
He posted: “Whattttt?!!!!!!! Coach Rodolfo should stay!!!”
Arruabarrena guided Wasl to a club-record 23 undefeated AGL matches from January 2017-January 2018. They led the 2017/18 competition at the halfway stage, only to limp home third after five reversals from their last 11 games.
The Cheetahs this year also marked their return to the AFC Champions League after a decade away with an ignominious six losses out of six Group C-fixtures.
تعلن شركة #الوصل لكرة القدم عقب اجتماعها مع الجهاز الفني عدم تجديد التعاقد مع مدرب الفريق رودولفو أروابارينا وجهازه المعاون بنهاية فترة تعاقدهما الحالية، وتتقدم الشركة بالشكر للمدرب وطاقمه الفني على ما قدموه للنادي، متمنية لهم التوفيق والنجاح في مسيرتهم القادمة pic.twitter.com/fhmO70RXQc— Al Wasl SC (@AlWaslSC) May 6, 2018
Overtures had already been made to him by Shabab Al Ahli before his exit was confirmed. A sizeable rebuilding task awaits at the merged club after a miserable inaugural season, with all six foreign players on their books expected to be leave.
Chile’s Jose Luis Sierra, 49, of Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad is among several candidates to be discussed at Rashid Stadium.
Former Al Hilal tactician Ramon Diaz, 58, is the early favourite for the Wasl post.
But the beaten 2017 AFC Champions League finalist’s wage demands of €4 million per annum (Dh17.6m) are almost double the €2.2m (Dh9.7m) countryman Arruabarrena earned.
Meanwhile, runners-up Al Wahda have revealed renewals for 110-goal striker Sebastian Tagliabue, iconic forward Ismail Matar and UAE right-back Mohammed Al Menhali.