Al Ahli goalkeeper Ahmed Dida claims the Red Knights’ fighting spirit on the road has ensured they have a “50/50” chance of making history at Guangzhou Evergrande by lifting the AFC Champions League trophy.
The Red Knights ground out a goalless first leg on Saturday in Dubai, leaving the decider between west and east Asia’s finest sides delicately poised for the return match in China on November 21.
Cosmin Olaroiu’s men have excelled away during their opening knockout-stage run in the continent’s elite club competition, being undefeated at Al Ain, Iran’s Naft Tehran and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal. UAE goalkeeper Dida, 26, expected more of the same in a fortnight.
He said: “I think the chances are still on the pitch and still 50/50. Even though the second game is in China, it is still 50/50.
“We can still win, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t score. The biggest part was to not concede a goal.
“In China, it will be a different story and a different atmosphere – even the pressure will be different.
“I don’t know why, but always with the games away we do better. That is a positive thing and we should think positively about that.”
The sides meet again after the international break at the 58,500-capacity Tianhe Stadium, a ground in which Guangzhou are undefeated in 13 matches.
Despite playing host for the decider, veteran club and China skipper Zheng Zhi insisted “there is no advantage” for his side.
“With the score now, there is no advantage for us,” the 35-year-old former Celtic and Charlton Atheltic midfielder told Sina. “The last time we were in the AFC finals [when they defeated FC Seoul in 2013] we had two away goals – now the situation is different. But I can say we are very confident for the second round of the competition.”
A key factor in the second leg will be the participation of Southern China Tigers’ 2015 ACL top scorer Ricardo Goulart. He was stretchered off at Rashid Stadium on 59 minutes with an ankle injury which boss Luiz Felipe Scolari declared would make it “difficult” for his star forward to feature in the return.
When asked if doubts about the 24-year-old’s particpation were a boost for Ahli’s hopes, Dida emphasised the five-time-reigning Chinese Super League champions’ strength in depth.
He replied: “It is obvious Guangzhou are a good team.
“I am sure they have players who can take his place. We play against Guangzhou, not just one player.”
Errant winger Ryan Babel has pleaded for a “last chance” to impress the Al Ain support after he was banished to the Under-21s because of an expletive-laden social media post.
Babel, 28, has previously been embroiled in a sexism row and received a red card for a high foot since he made a summer move from Kasimpasa. His latest indiscretion saw him publish a picture on Instagram on Friday – later deleted – with the caption “#BabelOut” followed by an offensive symbol and the Boss’ official Twitter handle.
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Club management swiftly reacted to his misbehaviour, issuing an unspecified fine and sending him to train with the junior side for an indeterminate time during a disciplinary meeting on Saturday night.
“My vision became clear after the meeting,” the ex-Liverpool and Netherlands star said in a statement on Sunday. “Personally, I wish the fans can accept my apologies.
“I wish I could find the trust of the Al Ain masses and they give me one last chance.”
A return of one goal in five Arabian Gulf League appearances and lengthy list of faux pas has placed doubts about his future ahead of the winter transfer window.
Babel received world-wide criticism in August after he offensively responded to a female fan who disagreed with his views on former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez’s tactics, by tweeting: “Ur a girl … Stay in ur lane.” This was followed by a red card in the top-flight victory against Dibba Al Fujairah on October 17 for a high boot.
The club declined to reveal the specifications of his latest punishment, but revealed approval had arrived from the highest levels.
“The board of Al Ain, headed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan, approved the technical and administrative penalties issued by the Technical Committee,” said team supervisor HE Mohammed Obeid Hammad.
The measures are expected to see Babel miss tomorrow’s Group B, Arabian Gulf Cup-tie at Fujairah.
A bit of belief can work wonders. This is a maxim Al Ahli must follow when the battle for AFC Champions League glory with Guangzhou Evergrande resumes on November 21.
The Red Knights were not valiant in a goalless first leg of the final last night in Dubai. Caution and self-doubt appeared more often.
The fear of gifting an advantage to the 2013 winners and five-time reigning Chinese Super League-holders restricted the electric attacking play which has brought Ahli to a historic-first appearance in the decider of the continent’s premier club competition.
Boss Cosmin Olaroiu had asked for “Spartans” and “fighters” on Friday, but his words were not heeded.
Such constraint did not appear when UAE forward Ahmed Khalil’s brace of last-gasp headers in the last Group D match against Tractor Sazi ended a run of five exits in the opening stage.
There was certainly no holding them back when a three-goal, five-minute salvo saw them dump out Al Ain in the round of 16 or when a brilliant two-legged semi-final performance against Saudi Arabian heavyweights Al
Hilal saw the unlikely figure of Kwon Kyung-won step up with a decisive 94th-minute winner.
Attacking talent rather than defensive control is the hallmark of the Romanian’s team. It has seen them release the shackles of last term’s dismal Arabian Gulf League title defence, a 100-per-cent winning start containing an imposing 18 goals in five matches.
Yet, a collective which contains Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro, lethal compatriot Lima and joint-second highest 2015 ACL top scorer Khalil produced precious little.
Only winger Ismail Al Hammadi’s powerful first-half rocket after a typically-driving run made China goalkeeper Zeng Cheng sweat.
Ahli had little to fear from anonymous ACL leading marksman Ricardo Goulart and probably even less now after the forward was stretchered off with a painful ankle injury on 59 minutes.
Highly-rated forward Elkeson barely registered a shot and only China winger Huang Bowen’s 46th-minue thunderbolt which rattled the crossbar caused any real concern.
The Southern China Tigers are experiencing a 22-match unbeaten run since Brazil’s World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari took the reins in June. In typical fashion – the 7-1, 2014 World Cup-thrashing of Brazil by Germany aside – the 66-year-old has made his charges tougher to beat rather than imbuing them with elan.
The defensive-midfield axis of Paulinho and veteran China captain Zheng Zhi are this side’s major strong point, along with South
Korea centre-back Kim Young-gwon who will return from suspension for the return tie at Tianhe Stadium. But Ahli must believe they have the attacking power to break through this wall. Such faith is based on fact, rather than fiction.
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) November 7, 2015
Lima’s 12-match scoring run since his summer switch from Benfica ended with a whimper last night, the striker having nothing but a marginally-over hit Ribeiro free-kick in the final quarter to feed on.
This Brazilian double act were uncharacteristically quiet, yet this had as much to do with an underwhelming performance as the diligent display from Zhi and Paulinho.
Ahli have defied painful memories of the past to make it through the group and onto the final. Only self belief is holding them back from writing another glorious page in their history books.