Allesio Cicchi headed in a golden goal winner 10 seconds from the end of extra time to give reigning Emirates Islamic National School League Football Under-14 champions Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou a shot at defending their title.
It was a crushing blow for opponents Indian High School Oud Metha who would have headed into the penalty shootout with confidence having more than matched LFI in their highly entertaining quarter-final encounter at The Sevens on Saturday.
Oud Metha goalkeeper Piyush Salain enjoyed an inspired afternoon between the sticks, at one point pulling off a triple save to deny the champions from taking the lead.
Opposite number Hedi Hbaieb was also kept busy and both were probably mentally preparing for penalties when Cicchi rose to meet Lyes Messaoudi’s corner with a bullet header that finally beat Salain.
“For the first half it was very difficult, we played very bad, the coach told us we had to play better,” said man-of-the-match Messaoudi, 13.
“With 10 seconds left of the match we scored. We were nervous in the first half but in the second I think we played more like a team.”
The match was reminiscent of LFI’s march to glory last year. They had to come from 3-2 down in the inaugural NSL U-14 final against Al Salaf Al Saleh Private School, scoring a last minute goal to send the tie to extra time where they won 4-3.
“I think a victory in that manner can help us,” added Messaoudi.
“There is pressure on us being the champions. Teams don’t like us but hopefully we can emulate the team of last year and win it again.”
LFI will meet Our Own English High School Fujairah in the semi-finals on February 4 after they also needed extra time to beat Dubai’s Delhi Private School.
Khaled Mohamed, scorer of their goal in a 1-0 win, said: “It felt more special to win it in the way we did. Inshallah we can go on and win it (the tournament) now.”
In another closely fought encounter, Mahmoud Wahbeh’s goal proved the difference as Wellington International School beat The Millennium School Dubai 1-0.
In fact, NIMS Sharjah were the only side across all eight U-14 and U-16 quarter-finals to win by more than a goal, overcoming Abu Dhabi Indian School thanks to goals from Mohammad Shafiq Taj and Hafeez Munaf.
Donning an actual captain’s armband on your sleeve is probably a first for the Emirates Islamic National School League Football competition – then again, GEMS Our Own Indian skipper Tony Paul takes his role as team leader seriously.
What’s even stranger than the appearance of the armband is that Manchester United fan Paul uses Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard – and his inspirational performance in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan – as his role model.
Just like Stevie G did throughout his Reds career, Tony P was the heartbeat of his side as he dragged them into the NSL Under-16 semi-finals on Saturday with a man-of-the-match performance in a nail-biting 3-2 quarter-final win against Fujairah’s Institute of Applied Technology (IAT).
Paul scored a captain’s goal for GEMS, who led throughout the contest, with Rixon Lobo adding a brace, although IAT fought back superbly in the second half and set up enthralling finale when they made it 3-2 in the final minutes.
They had eased into the last eight with a commanding 5-1 win against Delhi Private School Sharjah in the last 16 clash earlier on at The Sevens.
Captain marvel Paul will now hope to lead his team all the way to glory when GEMS face Al Ain Juniors English in the last four in two weeks’ time on February 4.
“As captain, I want to be an example to my team, be a good role model, and inspire my team-mates,” said the 16-year-old.
“I admire Steven Gerrard as a captain. I think about him in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan, he was just amazing, that was inspirational and that’s what kind of captain I want to be – even though I’m a Manchester United fan.”
Paul is not short on confidence and says his team are not interested in anything else but lifting the NSL trophy.
“We’re going all the way. Nothing but the trophy will do for us,” he added.
GEMS played in the inaugural NSL tournament last year but didn’t make it out of the group stages, although Paul believes his team are better equipped to succeed this time around.
“The difference this year has been we have more chemistry,” he said.
“I’m playing with all my friends, we have played together longer as a team now so we’re more familiar with each other and that has helped us through.”
Another man not short on confidence is Ralph Charaf, whose brilliantly struck volley proved to be the difference between reigning U-16 champions Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou and Alkamal American School.
The French school were made to fight all the way for their 1-0 victory which sent them through in a pulsating encounter – Charaf’s rocket from Thomas Rousse’s delightful lofted pass giving them a chance to make it back-to-back triumphs next month.
And, having moved to the school this year and not been a part of last year’s title-winning team, Charaf is determined to get himself a winners’ medal.
“We won last year, we’re here to defend that title and we’re coming to get it back,” said Charaf, 15.
“I’m more determined because I wasn’t part of the team that won the trophy last year.”
Striker Charaf was subjected to some rough treatment by LFI’s Sharjah opponents, but the striker relishes the physical nature of the game.
“I hold the ball up and it’s physical, I get a few kicks, but I enjoy that,” he said.
“It was a tough game but we came through it. Easy game, hard game, physical game we don’t care, we just want to win every single game.”
All four quarter-finals were decided by just one goal, highlighting the calibre of all eight teams.
Mahmoud Khalil’s brace was the difference as Al Ain’s Our Own English School overcame Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra 2-1, while Mohammed Sajid scored the goal that sent Al Ain Juniors English into the last four following a 1-0 triumph against Abu Dhabi Indian School.
The Fujairah-based school romped to the top of their under-16 group with three wins from four, winning the Fujairah group ahead of fellow last 16 entrants Our Own English High School.
Jonathon Bateman’s side finished top thanks to their far superior goals scored record, bagging 14 in four games and only conceding three.
They face Dubai side GEMS New Millennium Al Khail at The Sevens on Saturday as the last 16 kicks off, with the winners proceeding to a possible clash with either GEMS Our Own Indian School or Delhi Private School Sharjah in the quarter-finals – which will also be played on Saturday.
They may be debutants this year, but that doesn’t mean they are there simply to make up the numbers.
“We definitely have aspirations of winning the title,” said Bateman.
“When you are playing a tournament in any sense you want to win it, so fingers crossed. I’ve seen enough from my team to suggest we can go far.
“We were very comfortable in the group stages, so we have lots of confidence. We know that the group stages are going to be against teams from across the UAE, so competition will be fierce, but they go in confident.”
Bateman bemoaned that he will have two or three players missing for Saturday with other tournament commitments, but he is right to have confidence as several players are tied to Arabain Gulf League outfit Dibba Al Fujairah.
“We have a few boys linked in with with local under-18 teams, like Dibba,but this has been a good opportunity for them to get involved with school tournaments.
“We have a few issues with two or three players unavailable, but it’s a chance for others to step up and take their chance.”
Coming from a background where extra-curricular activities are common, Englishman Bateman said the concept of the NSL tournament was alien to the school before he pushed for their entry into this year’s tournament.
Bateman added: “Everyone’s really excited. It’s not very often these kids get the chance to prove themselves in a school football tournament, there’s lots of opportunities with their clubs, but not school.
“But now, all of the school is getting behind the team. At the start there was a bit of skepticism but from week one they’ve embraced it.
“ The school didn’t know about it before. One of my friends who teaches at Fujairah Private Academy told me about it and, coming from England where after school activities are big, you miss it here.
“But the kids wanted to get involved, they wanted to have fun, so it’s been a bonus getting through to the knockout stages.”