Al Wahda’s pursuit of history was halted as they were beaten 3-2 by Saudi Arabia champions Al Nassr in a thrilling spectacle in Abu Dhabi – losing their AFC Champions League last 16 tie 4-3 on aggregate.
The hosts got off to the perfect start when they strengthened their grip on the tie with the opening goal. Nassr failed to deal with a cross and Leonardo punished calamitous marking by picking out right-back Mohammed Al Menhali who fired high beyond former Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones.
But the tie was turned on its head in five mad minutes at the end of the half when Nassr took the lead overall. First, Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah clinically headed in Fahad Al Jumayah’s cross after Wahda failed to clear. Brazilian schemer Giuliano then steered a composed finish beyond Mohamed Al Shamsi after latching on to Hamdallah’s cute flick-on.
The away side put themselves in the driving seat in the second half when Giuliano scored a second, knocking in the rebound after pouncing on Al Shamsi’s initial save.
Jones survived a sending off appeal when he rushed from his goal to bring down Sebastian Tagliabue – who then missed a glorious chance to hand his side a draw and progress in stoppage time when he inexplicably headed over. In between that, Leonardo also should have seen red for a headbutt while Wahda turned in a grandstand finish when Tagliabue flicked in a wayward shot.
A lot was made of Nassr’s tag as champions of Saudi and heavy favourites ahead of this tie, but Wahda more than matched them over 180 minutes.
The Clarets were the architects of their own downfall though in the UAE capital, on a chaotic night where the scoreline – and amount of players to finish the game – could have numbered anything.
After taking the lead Maurice Steijn’s hosts were sloppy in the closing stages of the first half, allowing the visitors to claw their way back into the game when in truth they hadn’t really been in it. First, the midfield allowed Al Jumayah time and space to cross, while Hamdan Al Kamali couldn’t get to grips with Hamdallah.
The defence then failed to pick up Giuliano who waltzed in to give Rui Vitoria’s side the game’s and overall lead.
Wahda skipper Ismail Matar – excellent overall – gifted the away side a killer goal when he inadvertently contributed to Nassr’s third. The veteran then saw a superb curling free-kick clawed away by Jones before the Clarets continued their assault – on the Nassr goal as well as themselves.
First Leonardo – who should have seen red for a headbutt on Omar Hawsawi – had a goal disallowed after his looping header, which was going in, was prodded in by Nicolas Milesi. In stoppage time, Tagliabue – an aerial specialist – somehow headed horribly over from six yards out with the goal gaping.
HAMDALLAH IS THE HERO
It’s been an interesting year for Nassr striker Hamdallah. In April the Moroccan broke the Saudi Pro League record for goals in a season since it became professional in 2007.
He struck twice in a routine 5-0 win over Al Fateh to take his tally to 29. He ended up with 34. He overtook the 27 Al Ahli Jeddah’s Syrian striker Omar Al Somah netted in the 2015/16 season.
Then, in June, he appeared in videos training with Nassr a few days after walking out of Morocco’s Africa Cup of Nations training camp due to apparent hip and back injuries. It was subsequently reported he had fallen out with team-mate Faycal Fajr.
Back in action for his club, the 28-year-old has picked up the stunning form that fired Nassr to the Pro League title last season in the early throes of 2019/20. The man with six goals in 14 caps for the Atlas Lions was their goalscorer in Riyadh a week ago and was the catalyst for a manic victory in Abu Dhabi.
His brutish physical presence was a problem for Al Kamali all night and he manhandled the UAE stalwart to direct Al Jumayah’s beyond the reach of Al Shamsi to equalise.
Minutes later he received a pass with his back to goal on the edge of the box and used his considerable presence – as well as some deft footwork – to put Giuliano through for a second. Proof that whatever he’s doing, Hamdallah appears a destructive force.
WHERE IS AL MENHALI’S RECOGNITION?
Does Mohammed Al Menhali have a case for being the most underrated player in UAE football? Because the 28-year-old right-back has been a beacon of consistency for Wahda for the last five years.
Plucked from obscurity at Bani Yas in 2014, the Al Jazira product has transformed himself into the ideal modern-day full-back. Diligent and alert in defence, he is also not shy of contributing further up the field, whether that be charging up and down the right flank or in the opponents’ penalty box.
The versatile operator is also a useful midfielder – he was pushed higher up as Wahda chased a way back into the game on Monday.
The marauding right-back already has one goal in this year’s competition – netting the equaliser in Jeddah as the Clarets clawed a point against Al Ittihad in their final group games.
He gets through a mountain of work each game and has flourished since Al Nahyan academy graduate Ahmed Rashid’s fine progress saw him switch into the centre of Wahda’s defence.
Al Menhali, surprisingly, has no UAE caps to his name. Not one. His being overlooked seems strange in what has proved a problematic position for the Whites in recent years.
Abdulaziz Haikal’s ruinous loss of form and Mohamed Ahmed’s injury woes have seen the national team resort to using converted Al Ain winger Bandar Al Ahbabi at right-back, though the Boss flyer has flourished there for both club and country.
Al Menhali’s form proves new coach Bert van Marwijk could have the answer to this conundrum right under his nose.
Guangzhou Evergrande marched clear at the Chinese Super League’s summit with a seven-point advantage after a 3-1 win over second-placed Beijing Guoan on Sunday.
Guangzhou took the lead through Paulinho in the 10th minute, but his effort was cancelled out seven minutes later by Zhang Yuning.
The visitors regained the lead in the second half through Elkeson and then Yang Liyu and held the advantage to the end despite Beijing’s efforts.
The Clarets gained a precious away goal in the first leg of the last 16 clash in Saudi Arabia last week as the two sides drew 1-1 in Riyadh. Abderrazak Hamdallah had given hosts Nassr the lead in the 17th minute at King Fahd International Stadium.
But lethal Leonardo’s ninth goal of the campaign in the 53rd minute was the key as it gave Maurice Steijn’s side the perfect cushion to take back to Al Nahyan Stadium.
But Argentine veteran Tagliabue has warned his team-mates that the tie is far from over.
“Of course the game is not finished. There’s still 90 minutes to play and Al Nassr will come very hard at us, as will we,” the 34-year-old told Sport360 ahead of the second leg in Abu Dhabi on Monday evening (19:40 kick-off).
“We also want to win and pass into the next round. It’s a very important game for us. We are ready and we will play at 100 per cent.”
If the Clarets are to progress it would be a huge statement from them and new manager Steijn, who has been at the helm barely a month after being announced as Henk ten Cate’s successor.
They are also in the knockout stages of the competition for the first time in well over a decade – the last time they played a game beyond the group was way back in 2007.
On that occasion Wahda made it all the way to the semi-finals, losing 3-1 on aggregate to Iran’s Sepahan, who would go on to lose 3-1 to Japan’s Urawa Reds in the final.
Nassr are also reigning Saudi Pro League champions but Tagliabue believes they will be feeling the pressure – not to mention the heat – when they head to Abu Dhabi.
“It will be noisy because Al Nassr is a big team. They play good football, but I think it will be much different here than in the first half there,” said Tagliabue, referred to affectionately among Wahda fans as ‘Tigali’, and who is heading into his seventh season at the club.
“They played a very high level in the first half and in the second they were very tired. I think here they will be very tired too with the weather, so we have to take advantage of that.
“I think it was a good result and good game. We played a good game and during it we got better, especially in the second half. We kept the ball and played our football.
“We found a goal which is very important, it’s very important in the Champions League to score an away goal and now we have a chance at home to qualify.”
The winners will go on to face either Al Duhail or Al Sadd, both of Qatar, in the quarter-finals. In the other ties in west Asia, Saudi side Al Ittihad hold a 2-1 lead against Iran’s Zob Ahan, while in an all-Saudi clash, Al Hilal lead Al Ahli Jeddah 4-2 following their first leg.
Zob Ahan host Ittihad on Monday while the all-Saudi and Qatari second legs take place on Tuesday.