Heroic goalkeeper Khalid Essa has told surprise 2018 Club World Cup finalists Al Ain “to aim high” and believe that they can pull off another major upset – this time against European giants Real Madrid.
The UAE No1 has been the star man for the Boss throughout the tournament, saving decisively in penalty shootouts during the first-round opener against New Zealand amateurs Team Wellington and, memorably, against Copa Libertadores winners River Plate in Tuesday’s intense semi-final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Three-time-successive UEFA Champions League winners and CWC holders Madrid are up next after they saw off Japan’s Kashima Antlers on Wednesday at Zayed Sports City. Following a stirring week of action that has seen his side make history as the Emirates’ club to make the global showpiece, fearless Essa was not intimidated by meeting Los Blancos.
“It’s a great result for the UAE,” said the 29-year-old about the epic 2-2 draw and 5-4 shootout triumph against River. “We have reached the final and so we will try our best.
“Now we’re going to try to win it, we have nothing else to aim for. If we reach the final we will try to win.
“Why not? It will be difficult, but if there is a chance we have to aim high.
“For me, this is the best moment in Al Ain, because in 2016 I lost the AFC Champions League final, so this is the best moment for me. Hopefully, we can complete this.”
Al Ain’s victories have been made even more creditable by the fact they had to weather three intense matches within seven days – CAF CL winners Esperance de Tunis were thrashed 3-0 in Saturday’s quarter-final. These fixtures have been played at a greater intensity than is standard domestically for the Arabian Gulf League champions, plus they’ve come with much more frequency.
“It’s certainly the realisation of a big dream,” veteran centre-back Ismail Ahmed told FIFA.com. “We’re proud of this achievement, but the ultimate goal of winning this title still remains.
“It wasn’t easy for us to reach the final. In the opener we played for 120 minutes, then we had a big game against Esperance.
“And this was the third match in a very short space of time. Despite this, our players performed extremely well in all three games, which is not easy to do.”
Ahmed has performed admirably since the shock of going 3-0 behind to Team Welly on December 12’s opening night.
Now in the twilight of his celebrated career for club and country, the UAE stalwart is relishing the moment in the global spotlight.
He said: “I’m extremely proud to play in a competition like the Club World Cup at the age of 35. I’ve done everything I could in this competition and hopefully have made Al Ain and all of UAE football proud.”
For all Ahmed’s admirable displays, it required a helping hand from Essa to see the Boss through against River.
Substitute Enzo Perez was the fall guy, as the shot stopper dove right to push away his effort and make sporting history.
This saw a second man-of-the-match trophy come his way.
“Best player – it doesn’t matter as long as I see everyone smiling,” he stated.
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