Sebastian Tagliabue relishing Al Wahda's return to AFC Champions League knockouts

Matt Jones - Editor 15:17 04/08/2019
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Tagliabue will spearhead Wahda's attack in Riyadh - the club are appearing in the ACL knockouts for the first time in 12 years.

The task at hand “could not be more difficult” for Al Wahda as they prepare to play their first AFC Champions League knockout game in more than a decade.

The Clarets face Al Nassr – champions of Saudi Arabia – in the first leg of their last-16 tie on Monday night, heading into the lion’s den of Riyadh’s formidable King Fahd Stadium.

They have lost influential Henk ten Cate, who was the driving force behind their historic progression from the group stage, in the ensuing two-and-a-half months. And they are relative continental novices in the sense that the last time they played a knockout clash, it was way back in 2007.

Veteran forward Ismail Matar, now 36, was just 24, when Wahda made it all the way to the semi-finals 12 years ago, losing 3-1 on aggregate to Iran’s Sepahan, who in turn would go on to lose 3-1 to Japan’s Urawa Reds in the final.

Having said that, only Sanfrecce Hiroshima amassed more points (15) than Wahda’s 13 in the group stage and no team in Asia scored more than their 14 goals.

And Matar’s fellow old head, Sebastian Tagliabue, feels Wahda have just as much going for them as the Saudi kings.

“We play against the last champion of Saudi Arabia. It could not be more difficult,” the Arabian Gulf League’s record foreign goalscorer told Sport360 ahead of Monday’s first leg.

“And it’s more than Champions League, it’s Champions League against Al Nassr, they have been growing in the last three-four years. But we are Al Wahda and we are also growing up in the last five years a lot.

“The bad thing for us is we’ve grown up a lot in the last six months but we’ve missed players and the coach, a few things. But the people who have come in are also good, so we have to work, know each other and I think we can pass this round. It will be very difficult but we have a big chance to pass.”

Although the obstacle is a mountainous one, Tagliabue feels his side will take great confidence with a positive performance and result in Riyadh and feels that if Wahda progress to the quarter-finals, victory against Nassr would give them huge confidence for the rest of the tournament.

“You know, some people say the most difficult games in the Champions League is the group stage, because after it is only two games,” added the 34-year-old, who finished top scorer in the AGL for a second time in six seasons last term with 27 strikes.

“You play 90 minutes and then you prepare for another game. Before this 90 minutes you never know what will happen. So maybe you have a very good game and win 3-0 so the next game you have to move the ball, score maybe one goal and it will be tight.

“Yes (this game will be more difficult), because of the timing, coming from holiday, it’s the first two games of the season, it’s very hot. If you win these two games you will have a lot of confidence. The other team (in the quarter-finals) will too, of course, have confidence.”

Although Wahda and new coach Maurice Steijn might be heading into uncharted territory, they can rely on cool heads in their veterans Matar and Tagliabue, with the Argentine able to call on his previous knockout stage experience.

He scored three of Al Shabab Riyadh’s five goals en route to a 5-1 aggregate victory over Qatar’s Al Gharafa – a side containing ex-Australia international Mark Bresciano and former Liverpool and France striker Djibril Cisse – in the last 16 of the 2013 edition.

They exited at the hands of South Korea’s Kashiwa Reysol on away goals in the last eight.

Leonardo - a free transfer from Al Ahli last summer - has been a sensation for Wahda, especially in this year's Champions League.

Leonardo – a free transfer from Al Ahli last summer – has been a sensation for Wahda.

“When I was in Al Shabab in Saudi, I played in this game – the first round of the knockouts – and we won,” he recalled.

“The first game was unbelievable, it was 2-1 away, very tough, and then the second game we killed Al Gharafa, I scored two at home. It was very nice. It will be difficult but I think if we pass it will give us confidence that we can go further.”

As for the game coming early and returning to pre-season long before other AGL sides, Tagliabue believes it can be both a blessing and a disguise for this tie and the domestic season to come.

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” he added when asked if coming back from holiday earlier is a help or hindrance.

“Sometimes yes because you play two games before you start the league, plus the Arabian Gulf Cup. In another way it can be the opposite because you start too early.

“When we came back from the camp in Europe a few weeks ago, some other local teams were just going to their camp.

“We start one month before everyone maybe and now it’s coming fast. We will see how we manage the training and games at the end of the season. But now it is very hot and difficult. Every day we feel much better but it’s difficult at this time to train and play.”

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