Late goal puts Al Ahli’s Champions League qualification ambitions on hold

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Eye on the ball: Ahmed Khalil battles for possession against Al Ahli in Jeddah.

Hammerblows have been no stranger to Al Ahli during an often-dreadful 2014/15 campaign. But few would have felt worse than last night’s.

The Red Knights suffered the injustice of Majed Hassan’s dismissal for mistaken identity when a goal to the good, followed by the subsequent pain of Bruno Cesar’s 94th-minute winner for now AFC Champions League Group D winners Al Ahli Jeddah. 

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The error from referee Abdullah Baloushi was both glaring and grating. It saw Ahli go from the verge of a historic-first round-of-16 qualification with a game to spare, to the painful possibility that even victory in their final clash at home to bottom-placed Tractor Sazi may not be enough depending on Nasaf’s result.

Hassan was heartbroken on the final whistle, breaking down in tears and screaming as he was held back by coach Cosmin Olaroiou. Police surrounded the Qatari official, preventing the inconsolable UAE defensive midfielder from doing something truly regrettable.

The suffering was added to by the quality of what went before. Ahli resembled the redoubtable side that stormed to the treble in 2013/14 rather than the stuttering version that has sunk down the Arabian Gulf League standings this term. Their opponents have not lost in regulation time all season and had won their last seven Saudi Professional League matches. But Al Malaki were made to look limited last night.

The opener on 16 minutes was a stunner. Everton Ribeiro set the tone throughout during a long-awaited breakthrough performance, looking every inch the Brazil playmaker of high repute signed in the winter transfer market.

His measured low finish from 20 yards skipped past goalkeeper Abdullah Al Maiouf following a driving run from out wide.

The hosts peppered the opposing goal from a variety of angles and situations, Ribeiro ably carrying the ball with purpose on the counter when it fell his way. Al Malaki midfielder Mustafa Al Bassas headed criminally wide when unmarked in response, before the excellent Ahmed Dida tipped Egypt full-back Mohamed Abdel-Shafy’s pot shot from 20 yards away.

The narrative did not change after the interval, even including the Baloushi’s shoddy mistake – the Jeddah outfit continued to set the tempo, their namesakes preying on any mistakes. Substitute Cesar was clearly felled by compatriot Ribeiro, innocent bystander Hassan being erroneously handed a second yellow card despite standing just in front of the infraction.

Overstretched and overworked, old boy Osvaldo rattled the Red Knights post with venom from 10 yards. Ahli Jeddah’s numerical advantage was finally made to count on 78 minutes, substitute striker Mohanad Aseri nodding the leveller back across Dida’s goal from rampaging right-back Amiri Kurdi’s centre.

The knife to the heart came deep into injury time, former Benfica midfielder Cesar half-volleying in with venom as Ahli were beaten to the ball in their box. A once-promising evening had turned into agony.

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