Al Wahda boss Henk ten Cate hopes his side can rewrite history and end more than a decade of continental hurt by qualifying for the AFC Champions League’s knockout rounds in front of their own fans in two weeks’ time.
The Clarets have not featured beyond the group stages in Asia’s premier club competition for 12 years but took a giant step closer to doing so on Monday night when they edged Qatar’s Al Rayyan in a seven-goal thriller, 4-3.
Brazilian forward Leonardo was the hero with all four goals in Abu Dhabi – scoring twice in the final eight minutes as the capital city side sealed an incredible fightback from 3-1 down with 34 minutes remaining.
“It’s a long time that Al Wahda qualified for the next stage, and especially the way we did it with the home games we played,” said Dutchman Ten Cate.
“We scored four against Al Ittihad, and four now, in spectacular games. I hope we get a good result in the next game and we can celebrate with the supporters.
“We have two matches to get only one point. We should finish it off next week, the next game at home. It would be great if we could do that for our supporters.”
The Clarets have not featured in the Champions League since 2007, when they went on to reach the semi-finals – losing 3-1 on aggregate to Iran’s Sepahan.
And Ten Cate was pleased his brave tactics to throw on an extra attacker at the break paid off – with veteran Ismail Matar playing a part in Leonardo’s winner.
“This is a fantastic result. A good second half… a really good second half,” he said.
“I saw the hunger in the team so I pushed them to go more, to go for the victory. We took a risk, of course, but we brought a fresh attacker on. We wanted this. And it worked out. Very happy, very happy. Very proud. What a game.
“This is what they are capable of; this is what they want. This is what we want to see. Especially the spirit and the hard work they do every game. It’s great. It’s not easy to come back after 3-1, but they did.”
It was a case of déjà vu for Rayyan boss Gilson de Souza who had seen his side beaten 2-1 after leading in the reverse home fixture two weeks earlier.
The visitors came racing off the blocks and were in front within 120 seconds through Sebastian Soria. They doubled their lead just four minutes later through Gelmin Rivas who would then make it 3-1 in the 21st minute after Leonardo had briefly made it 2-1 with a brilliant individual goal.
Leonardo pounced on a loose ball, cutting inside into his left and drilling home his fifth strike of the competition to make it 3-2 just before the hour and he netted his hat-trick in the 82nd minute to make it all square, tapping in Khalil Ibrahim’s cross.
Unbelievably, he added a fourth a minute from time, nodding in Hussain Abbas’ touch to send the home fans soaring.
With Wahda on the verge of emerging from the group stages, that doesn’t seem the case for the UAE’s other representatives though, who both suffered 2-0 defeats on Tuesday.
Al Ain remain bottom of Group C following defeat at home to Al Duhail – Almoez Ali and Youssef El Arabi goals earning former Manchester United No2 Rui Faria’s side victory.
Meanwhile, in Dubai, Al Wasl also went down by the same scoreline to remain bottom of Group A with three points – Alireza Cheraghali and Amir Motahari with the Iranians’ goals.
Al Ain’s continental aspirations appear over for 2019 as they suffered a 2-0 home defeat to Al Duhail.
Almoez Ali and Youssef El Arabi goals either side of the break earned Rui Faria’s side victory in the Garden City – a result that leaves Juan Carlos Garrido’s side on the brink of elimination from the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Here we take a closer look at the performance of the home side’s Tongo Doumbia who stood out despite the defeat.
Garrido saw his side summon a superhuman effort in the reverse fixture as the brave Boss came from 2-0 down to salvage a deserved point two weeks ago. And the Spaniard may have felt the same miraculous powers of recovery would be needed again when his side conceded after just three minutes, Ali nodding in Edmilson’s cross following fine footwork that bamboozled Tsukasa Shiotani.
The hosts had their fair share of possession but created few chances – Bandar Al Ahbabi firing a free-kick over soon after and Ahmed Barman shooting wide, but Amine Lecomte-Addani was fairly untroubled in the visiting goal.
Their lack of creative spark showed when Garrido introduced Rayan Yaslam and Marcus Berg from the bench in quick succession but it proved in vain as El Arabi killed off home hopes when Shoya Nakajima dummied Ali’s low centre and he rifled high beyond Khalid Essa.
GOT RIGHT – KEPT HIS SIDE IN THE FIGHT
Doumbia has been in and out of the side in recent weeks but in times of strife, warriors were needed and he certainly battled hard for 90 minutes as Al Ain tried to pull off another heroic fightback.
Anchoring the midfield alongside Barman, the Mali international stood tall amid an early barrage of Duhail domination, breaking up attacks and providing a calm presence in the Boss’ engine room.
He was alert and forceful when needed and when the red-shirted visitors were repelled he was always a calm figure to receive the ball and try to spark Al Ain attacks.
GOT WRONG – ROUGH TREATMENT
In recent weeks Al Ain have been crying out for an enforcer, someone to grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them out of the doldrums. And Doumbia certainly fits the bill.
He is powerful, agile and tough as nails – and can also play a bit. But there were times in the second half, and with the game starting to slide by Al Ain, that he appeared to be walking a tightrope.
He incensed Dubail players when he left Edmilson in a heap, although he barely brushed the Brazilian attacker. But it was certainly done out of frustration and hardly helped his side’s cause.
VERDICT – 6/10
Calm and composed in the face of a deadly Duhail attack, Doumbia at least put his body on the line as he patrolled midfield and snuffed out regular attacks. The former Wolves, Toulouse and Dinamo Zagreb midfielder was always an outlet for his defenders and was never afraid to put his foot in where it hurt.
Success can bring its own set of problems – and this is something Al Hilal are acutely aware of as Thursday’s Zayed Champions Cup final against Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel slots into an exhausting fixture list.
The overworked Saudi Arabian heavyweights are in the midst of nine matches across four different competitions during April. Prevail during their sixth of the month and they’ll remain on course for a legendary quintuple, although their imminent opposition at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium will intend to derail these lofty ambitions at the first time of asking.
Here are the talking points:
TESTING MAMIC’S METTLE
Infamy or history await Hilal supremo Zoran Mamic.
From being on the verge of the sack after defeats in the AFC Champions League and Saudi Professional League less than a fortnight ago, things are looking rosy again for the Croatian.
His astuteness must now come to the fore when he attempts to pull off an expert juggling act that would spawn envious glances from a Cirque du Soleil performer.
Vocal Hilal fans have rallied against tournament organisers on social media for this punishing period, while suggesting that they wouldn’t mind seeing the King’s Cup sacrificed.
This will not be Mamic’s view. But could weariness play a defining role on Thursday?
Resource management is key. This should mean fresh opportunities for the likes of underperforming January addition Hattan Bahebri, while resting key performers like weary ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis at apt moments.
Get it right and Mamic will be a legend. He knows after less than three months in the hot seat, however, how quickly the mood can change if he doesn’t.
ETOILE’S GUIDING HAND
What can Hilal expect from the Tunisians?
They sit a distant third in the Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle 1, in contrast to the new SPL leaders. A gentle run to this decider has seen them edge past, largely, fellow North Africans, granted they do seem bound for the CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals.
None of their number featured in last month’s Tunisia squad.
But in septuagenarian boss Roger Lemerre they boast a Euro 2000 winner with France. His wiles may be key to springing an upset.