A goal 16 seconds into Friday night’s Arabian Gulf Cup-final proved enough for 10-man Al Wahda to lift the trophy for the first time, at toothless Al Shabab’s expense.
A contrast in emotions bookended a defining first half for Javier Aguirre’s champions.
They went ahead from kick-off through on-rushing Denilson’s second goal in 26 appearances, before erroneous-officiating saw Chile superstar Jorge Valdivia dismissed just before the break for a supposed kick only the additional referee and protesting opposition players witnessed.
Under persistent rain at Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium, a redoubtable edge of defiance then helped them easily bat away a piecemeal challenge from the Hawks and claim the season’s opening piece of major silverware.
A sense of desolation crept over the vanquished, for whom a last chance to salvage a miserable 2015/16 has gone. Last term’s third-placed Arabian Gulf League-finish and GCC Club Cup-success seems an age away for Caio Junior’s struggling side.
They singularly failed to make the most of Al Ahli’s long-disputed disqualification from the decider to their benefit by the UAE Football Association, with a damp display to match the weather.
Thank u for coming today habib..??❤️ yeah we are champions , enjoy shabab pic.twitter.com/dI2ufnEbow— Jorge valdivia (@el_mago_oficial) April 1, 2016
Moments after funnels of smoke and ticker tape greeted the entrance of the players, the Dubai-outfit went behind.
A devilishly-weighted ball from South American magician Valdivia rolled past hapless centre-back Mohammed Marzooq. Former Arsenal midfielder Denilson gratefully latched onto it inside the box, calmly slotting home via goalkeeper Salem Abdulla’s outstretched torso to notch a cup-winning goal during his first season in maroon.
Unimpressive January signing Juninho Potiguar’s scuffed effort in response was the sole highlight before Valdivia and the officials came to the fore.
Both he and countryman Carlos Villanueva dived in on a loose ball, the momentum throwing Valdivia up into the air. His landing was awkward, but not malicious.
Yet wild protestations from the Hawks, desperately searching for parity, led referee Salem Al Naqbi to confer with his assistant behind the goal. An adjudged kick to the head led to a bewildering dismissal.
‘El Mago’s’ reputation as a volatile figure is well established. A ban for an obscene gesture was incurred on debut for Wahda, this game was his return after a sending off against Al Ahli for a forearm to Khamis Esmail’s head and he is currently serving an international suspension.
But his second red card in consecutive club games could not be justified, even on repeated viewing. Such calls could chase a phenomenally-talented player out of the country.
A difficult second half for Wahda seemed inevitable on 51 minutes as Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor’s header forced a superb save from the Adel Al Hosani.
Yet, Shabab were unable to lay siege to their depleted opponents’ goal. The Clarets carried much-greater threat on the counter-attack through striker Sebastian Tagliabue.
A pitch invasion from the overjoyed Wahda bench and booming chants of “Valdivia” greeted the final whistle. There could be no disputing the better side had won.
AFC Champions League 2016 matches involving clubs from Saudi Arabia and Iran will be moved to venues in Oman, Qatar and the UAE due to rising political tensions.
The AFC Competitions Committee decided in January that the matches would be moved to neutral grounds if there had not been a return to normal relations between the two nations by March 15, 2016.
With no significant developments in the relationship between the two countries identified, both the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) and the Iran Football Federation (IRIFF) were required to propose neutral venues for their clubs’ remaining fixtures.
After assessing the proposals submitted by both Member Associations, the AFC approved the IRIFF’s proposal to play their home matches in Oman and the SAFF’s proposal to move their matches to Qatar and the UAE.
The full details of the matches are listed below.
April 20, 2016 Al Ittihad (KSA) vs. Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan (IRN)
Stadium: Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Doha, Qatar
April 20, 2016 Zobahan (IRN) vs. Al Nassr (KSA)
Stadium: Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Muscat,Oman
May 04, 2016 Al Nassr (KSA) vs. Zobahan (IRN)
Stadium: Rashid Stadium, Dubai, UAE
April 19, 2016 Al Hilal (KSA) vs. Tractorsazi Tabriz (IRN)
Stadium: Thani Bin Jassim Stadium, Doha, Qatar
The venues for the two remaining matches – Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan (IRN) vs. Al Ittihad (KSA) and Tractorsazi Tabriz (IRN) vs. Al Hilal (KSA) – will be announced at a later date.
Diligent defensive midfielder Khamis Esmail has declared there can be no slacking off from the UAE if they are to topple Asia’s heavyweights and secure a second-ever entry into the World Cup.
The Whites progressed into the third and final qualifying round in confident mood on Tuesday, snapping a seven-match losing streak against Group A winners Saudi Arabia with a 1-1 draw.
When the clashes between the continent’s 12 best teams begin in September, four automatic places for Russia 2018 will be up for grabs.
To attain one or an eventual inter-confederation play-off berth, Al Ahli star Esmail insists standards must continue to be raised by a maturing side.
He said: “It was a good result to qualify for the third round, but now we have to work more as we have to beat the best. Now, we have very strong games ahead.
“They’ll be even stronger than these games (in the second round). We have to work even more to make the World Cup.
“Now we have to concentrate and work even more. The teams we will face will be more dangerous and even stronger than the ones we faced in the second round.
“Every player wants to play in the World Cup. Now, we are very close to the World Cup – Inshallah, we do it.”
Coach Mahdi Ali’s charges have emerged as a team to fear. Strong displays at the London 2012 Olympics, victory at the 2013 Gulf Cup and last year’s third-placed finish at the Asian Cup show their quality.
But Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil – who is second-top scorer in the AFC process with 11 goals – refused to dwell on the past as he aimed for a bright future.
He said: “I think this time, we have to focus on the next round only. We do not want to care about what we did before.”
A potentially tense bid to become one of the four-best runners-up from the eight groups dissipated by kick-off in front of a 32,325-strong Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium crowd on Tuesday, as results elsewhere all but put the UAE through.
Despite the sting being taken out of the clash, the hosts impressed in responding to Taisir Al Jassim’s superb volley to secure a well-earned point thanks to the extraordinary Omar Abdulrahman’s blistering leveller.
“Saudi Arabia are a very strong team,” Esmail added. “They came here and it was easy for them, as they had already qualified.
“We had pressure to qualify. But Alhamdulillah, we put in a good performance and we qualified.”
Forever a stickler for detail, coach Ali used his post-match press conference to declare he wanted full control of summer training ahead of the resumption of competitive international action.
He said: “I made a mistake personally in giving the clubs the chance to prepare the players in the summer.
“I don’t underestimate the effort of the clubs. I just want to say each club has its style in the preparation. Next time, we have to make the preparation better because the qualifying period will be in the summer – we will not make the same mistake again.”
“I hope the team will get back to its identity in their performance.”