Al Ahli needed only five minutes to set course for the season’s first major domestic silverware as they predictably saw off a depleted and downcast Al Shabab in Saturday night’s Arabian Gulf Cup showpiece.
Indomitable Senegal centre forward Makhete Diop was the star, doubling up to make it 11 goals in 14 games since his December arrival. An early first ricocheted through Salem Abdulla’s legs, before he carefully tapped the second past the advancing goalkeeper late on.
Without absent attackers Henrique Luvannor – the competition’s top scorer with 10 strikes – and Tomas De Vincenti, plus having suffered a harrowing run of two wins from 16 preceding matches, last term’s beaten finalists failed to mount a concerted comeback.
The win provided a fillip to the Red Knights’ eight-strong UAE contingent after a harrowing international break caused their World Cup 2018 dreams to lie in tatters and forced the resignation of Mahdi Ali.
With a retention of the Arabian Gulf League unlikely after a campaign stained by internal discord, Cosmin Olaroiu welcomed a 10th trophy during six years in the Emirates. He said: “It is a new opportunity for me to thank the players.
“We created enough opportunities with Ahmed Khalil and Everton Ribeiro. We controlled more in the second half and we deserved the victory and the trophy.”
شكراً لكم .... انتم الابطال pic.twitter.com/gU7fRE0MdZ— النـــادي الاهــــلي (@AlAhliClub) April 1, 2017
For opposite number Miroslav Djukic, a reign which contains five losses and one draw doesn’t get any easier.
He said: “I’ve been here just two months. Now we need to work on things and maybe a win round the corner will change things.”
An incongruous Rio Carnival-inspired pre-match ceremony seemed to inspire Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro. His throughball put dead-eyed Diop in the gap between centre-back and full-back to open the scoring with a low shot.
This represented an improvement for Shabab, who fell behind within 13 seconds to Al Wahda in the previous edition’s decider.
Khalil, hamstrung by a calf injury for the Whites, then came within inches of doubling the lead as he headed against the post.
The interval did not herald a change of course as this repeat of 2011/12’s final continued to be a procession for Ahli.
It was Diop who sealed his club’s third AG Cup, artfully stroking home UAE winger Ismail Al Hammadi’s lofted first-time pass.
The UAE is unlikely to be impacted by FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s ambitious future plans for an expansion of the Club World Cup, according to a spokesperson for the governing body.
In December 2017 and 2018, the event which brings together the champions of Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, The Americas, Oceania and the local competition – Arabian Gulf League in this case – will return to the Emirates after a seven-year break. Inspections at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City on Wednesday and Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Thursday are under way to gauge readiness ahead of this year’s running.
But Rhiannon Martin, group leader, FIFA tournaments, has stated Infantino’s proposal to grow the event to 32 teams will not at this moment have an impact on the next two runnings, with the existing seven-team format set to stay in place.
She said: “It is still in the discussion stage to know when these changes will be made, but certainly with the 2017 and we think 2018 editions, they will stay the same.
“These discussions are still going on at FIFA headquarters.”
The current checks have centred on everything from camera positions to the media zone, as well as VIP areas and security perimeters.
“We’re here now doing inspections of the stadiums, training sites and the team hotel,” said Martin. “On the whole, everything is looking very much on track.
“We haven’t faced any big issues. But if we do, we’ll work with the Local Organising Committee.”
The match schedule and the official emblem will be announced next month. After that, the draw is set to be undertaken in October.
Alejandro Sabella, who led Argentina to the 2014 World Cup final, and respected ex-Al Nasr boss Ivan Jovanovic have been earmarked as long-term targets to replace departed UAE coach Mahdi Ali.
Overtures has been made to determine 62-year-old’s Sabella’s availability by the UAE Football Association, although a heart condition places doubts on this move.
The eight-times-capped former midfielder, who hasn’t worked since leaving Argentina in the wake of their 1-0 defeat to Germany in Brazil, underwent an angioplasty in December 2015 and was hospitalised again four months later only to be released after five days.
In regards to 54-year-old Serbian Jovanovic, who won three trophies from 2013-16 under now UAE FA president Marwan bin Ghalita at Nasr, talks have not begun.
This has opened up the possibility of an alternative candidate being selected ahead of their next qualifier against Thailand on June 13.
Croatian Zlatko Dalic, 50, enjoyed a positive relationship with many of the current squad at Al Ain from 2014-17 but is yet to be approached, while 59-year-old
Colombian Reinaldo Rueda – who guided Honduras and Ecuador to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups – would be extremely interested in accepting the role.
Here's Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella's priceless reaction to a Gonzalo Higuain shot off the post. https://t.co/oFroyV3oLT— ESPN (@espn) July 5, 2014
Ali, 51, handed in his resignation for the second – and final – time during a tortuous World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign immediately after Tuesday’s limp 2-0 defeat in Australia.
The result left the Whites four points off the progression spots with just three games left in Group B, with a change of direction needed to keep alive slim hopes of a second-ever participation.
“In talks at the point of transition between [ex-president] Yousuf Al Serkal and Marwan bin Ghalita [in April 2016], it was made clear Alejandro Sabella and Ivan Jovanovic were favoured by the new regime if a replacement was required for Mahdi Ali,” a senior and well-positioned source to the UAE FA said. “But you never know, a third man could appear from nowhere.”
A failure to already nail down a successor to Ali is curious in the wake of Ali’s revelation that he had initially offered to quit prior to November’s 2-0 victory against Iraq.
After that game, rumours also reached fever pitch that he had told the squad – many of who he first guided to success at the 2008 AFC U-19 Championship – that he planned to step aside.
Ali’s exit after four-and-a-half years at the helm has ramped up pressure on Bin Ghalita to get this decision right, with passionate calls in Arabic media arguing he and his board should exit as well.
Jovanovic was dismissed by Nasr in October 2016 after three years of fine work were undone by summer-buy Wanderley’s eligibility scandal.
Dalic left two months after guiding Al Ain to November’s 2016 AFC Champions League final.
The 2014 President’s Cup and 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League winner was in attendance last Thursday as the UAE lost 2-0 to Japan.
Highly-rated Rueda most recently won the 2016 Copa Libertadores with Atletico Nacional.