It’s advantage Al Nassr in the opening round of the Arab Club Champions Cup after substitute Ahmed Musa’s debut goal gave the Saudi Arabian side a 2-1 win over Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi.
There was a famous face on the bench for the Knights of Najd, with the Nigeria forward joining from Leicester City earlier this month for an initial fee of £14.8m, which is believed could rise to £25m.
And the Super Eagles star proved to be a super sub as he climbed off the bench and scored a superb winning goal, with the Saudi Professional League side now in the driving seat to make the last 16 when the sides reconvene in Riyadh at the end of September.
New Jazira coach Marcel Keizer was disappointed by the result but pleased his side are continuing to improve ahead of the Arabian Gulf League kick-off at the end of the month.
“I’m disappointed about the match but happy to see my team fighting with a good spirit,” said the 49-year-old Dutchman, who was sacked by Ajax in December.
“We can of course do better and the opponents were very good. Two nice goals but mistakes from us.
“We had a couple of chances and got through a lot of work in defence which I’m happy about. We need to keep possession better because we can play good.
“We are in the fourth week (of his reign) and this game was played in difficult circumstances. Maybe we’ll get a chance in Saudi and make a nice game there.”
The Keizer reign got off to the worst possible start when Jazira fell behind after barely three minutes.
Ali Khaseif’s horrible clearance was pounced on by a yellow shirt and headed into the path of Yahya Al Shehri – the attacking midfielder who played in all three group stage games for the Green Falcons at this summer’s World Cup.
He made Khaseif pay by curling a fine effort in off the inside of the post.
Jazira have lacked bite in midfield in recent years, but that issue looks like it might not be one for much longer with the summer acquisition of muscular Cameroon international midfielder Sebastien Siani.
The 31-year-old, signed from Belgium’s Antwerp, was industrious in the Jazira engine room and flashed a fierce left-footed effort just over Brad Jones’ bar on eight minutes.
— نادي الجزيرة (@AlJazira_uae) August 13, 2018
An equaliser arrived after 22 minutes and followed a flowing move, although it came courtesy of a goalkeeping gaffe.
Siani fed Brazilian winger Leonardo – who could be set for a reprieve under Keizer. The architect of Al Ain’s downfall in the final of the 2016 AFC Champions League final with previous side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors slipped in Ali Mabkhout who turned and fired a fairly tame effort at former Liverpool stopper Jones.
He nevertheless spilled it and the grateful Khalfan Mubarak gleefully swept into the roof of the net.
Jones would later make amends in first-half stoppage time when Mabkhout got round the back and the veteran Australian saved well with his legs.
In-between that, Khaseif was left motionless but almost with more egg on his face when Awadh Khamis’ firm free-kick hit the post and somehow deflected to safety instead of over the line off the goalkeeper’s knee.
There was little goalmouth action for much of the second-half, hardly surprising as both sides struggled in the stifling Abu Dhabi August heat.
But the one moment of note arrived courtesy of new Nassr signing Musa, the man newly arrived from the Premier League.
The Nigerian, who scored twice for the Super Eagles in Russia, came off the bench to make his debut and had an almost instantaneous impact.
The 25-year-old forward immediately began to chip away at what could turn out to be a huge fee half an hour after coming on for another Premier League old boy, ex-Watford winger Nordin Amrabat.
He lit up an otherwise draining second half 15 minutes from time. There was still plenty of work to do when the ball was played up to him 30 yards out.
But he obliterated Jazira centre-back Musallem Fayez for pace and stroked home past Khaseif calmly with his wrong foot to give the Saudi side a first-leg advantage.
The UAE will kick off their 2018 Asian Games campaign under a shroud of shame after Al Ain youngster Mohamed Khalfan Al Harasi was sent home in disgrace for sparking a mass brawl in a friendly.
The 19-year-old has been banished from UAE Under-23’s head coach Maciej Skorza’s squad for the Games, with the nation’s campaign getting underway with the junior Whites taking on Gulf neighbours Syria in Indonesia on Tuesday.
Skorza’s side will be keen to shift their focus from the unsavoury matter, which saw Al Harasi erupt in anger after a collision with opposing captain Adib Zainudin during the 93rd minute of Friday’s 2-0 warm-up loss to their hosts at Shah Alam Stadium.
The incident caused players and members of coaching staff from both teams to clash, forcing referee Suhaizi Shukri to prematurely end the match.
The outburst – of which young Boss midfielder Al Harasi later claimed was fueled by being spat on, without naming the alleged perpetrator – provided an unwelcome distraction just four days out from the UAE’s Group C-opener at Soreang’s Stadion Si Jalak Harupat.
Al Wahda centre-back Salem Sultan, however, attempted to draw a line under the incident as the Whites instead turn their attention to the tournament – where they will be hoping to replicate their showing from eight years ago.
The UAE reached the final in 2010, going down 1-0 to Japan as Yuki Saneto’s sole goal earned the Samurai Blue the trophy in China.
Sultan, one of the more experienced members of the squad at 25, insists he and his colleagues are ready to concentrate on matters on the field rather than off it.
“We are ready to emerge in a dignified manner and to take a positive result at the start of the road towards qualifying from the group,” said Sultan, part of the Clarets side that won the Arabian Gulf Cup and Super Cup in 2017/18.
“The morale of the players is very high and everyone is excited to participate in this tournament, which will be the focus of the attention of millions in Asia.
“The goal for all players is to compete and then honour the UAE flag and raise it high.”
UAE Asian Games squad: Abdulrahman Al Ameri, Mohammed Al Attas, Zayed Al Ameri (Al Jazira); Ahmed Rashid, Khalid Ibrahim, Mohammed Al Shamsi, Salem Sultan (Al Wahda); Ali Eid, Hussein Abdullah (Al Ain); Abdullah Juma, Hamad Jassim, Majed Surour (Sharjah); Ahmed Mohammed, Ismail Khamis (Shabab Al Ahli); Jassem Yaqoub, Rashed Omar (Al Nasr); Shaheen Surour (Fujairah); Abdullah Hassan (Hatta)
Ali Al Balushi and his team-mates are hoping to take home the gold at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
The Special Olympics UAE footballer is determined to win big when he and the rest of the team kick off at the World Games on home soil on 14 March next year.
Preparations are already well under way with the UAE looking to build on their positive performance at the inaugural Unified Football Cup, which was held in Chicago, USA, from July 17 to 21. It was part of Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations.
Al Balushi scored in the UAE’s 8-0 defeat of Canada in the group stages and is now eager to face teams from all over the world when they travel to his home country for next year’s Special Olympics World Games.
“Playing in the Unified Cup in Chicago was one of the proudest moments of my life,” said the 24-year-old. “I am so happy that our national team reached such special levels.”
The UAE finished third in the competition after resounding victories in the group stages where they won 8-0, 4-0 and 7-0. They narrowly missed out on a place in the final after losing on penalty kicks to Uruguay in the semi-final.
However, Al Balushi is confident his teammates can go all the way in Abu Dhabi next year.
“Without the penalties we would have been in the final, but this is the nature of a football game; some days you win, other days you lose,” he said.
“I think it is important to participate in international competitions like the Unified Cup as it helps to refine the talents of the UAE team, especially before the World Games in Abu Dhabi next year.
“I would like to participate in the next tournament to represent the UAE and to bring joy and smiles to the faces of my friends, loved ones and my family,” he added.