Al Ahli boss Cosmin Olaroiu has urged his “Spartans” to show their fighting spirit once again when the battle for AFC Champions League-final glory kicks-off against Guangzhou Evergrande.
The Red Knights squad stand on the verge of attaining legendary status with the first leg of the continental decider kicking off at a packed Rashid Stadium.
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They have been forced to scrap their way through to the meeting of west and east Asia’s finest sides, needing a last-gasp double from UAE forward Ahmed Khalil against Tractor Sazi to progress from the group stage and a 94th-minute winner from South Korean defensive midfielder Kwon Kyung-won to edge Al Hilal in the semi-finals.
Olaroiu highlighted his squad’s desire as a key weapon when they look to “write another page of history” this month against the 2013 winners.
“It is the easiest way to qualify, keeping clean sheets in the home game,” said the Romanian, when asked about how his team had only twice failed to concede during the knockout stages.
“In this kind of competition and at this level, it is difficult. I am very happy that every time we have scored more goals than the opposition. Even though we haven’t kept a clean sheet, we have qualified.
“I hope also tomorrow, my fighters and my Spartans will write another page of history.
“We will play again with the spi-rit of this country. We are not big in numbers, but we have big hearts.”
Ahli’s fraught relationship with the ACL appeared to be continuing in the early running, sitting bottom of Group D after three matches and looking set for a sixth group-stage exit from six attempts. This all changed with a 3-2 victory against Tractor, which propelled a debut knockout run which has taken them past UAE rivals Al Ain, Iran’s Naft Tehran and most-thrillingly Saudi Arabian’s Al Hilal.
An Asian heavyweight awaits in the showpiece.
The Southern China Tigers earned a fifth-consecutive Chinese Super League-title last weekend, possess the 2015 ACL’s top scorer in forward Ricardo Goulart and Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning boss Luiz Felipe Scolari.
But Olaroiu downplayed the importance of his opponent’s incredible CV, which contains no less than 21 winners medals from four different countries in south America and Asia as well as leading the Portuguese national team to the 2006 World Cup semi-finals.
He said: “My motivation now is to prepare the game and give the best information for my players to motivate them and bring them to the top level in the field.
“For me, it is not about who is on the other bench. I respect all coaches, it doesn’t matter.
“During my career, I have faced many coaches and respected them.”
— النـــادي الاهــــلي (@AlAhliClub) November 6, 2015
The upcoming contest is set to have a distinctly-Brazilian flavour. For Ahli, striker Lima has an incredible 14 goals in his first 12 appearance since a summer move from Benfica and playmaker Everton Ribeiro was part of Brazil’s 2015 Copa America squad.
Opposing them will be Brazil centre midfielder Paulinho, the lethal Goulart – a former team-mate of Ribeiro at Cruzeiro – and forward Elkeson.
“Everybody knows they are big players in Brazil, with some of them also playing for the national team,” said Lima. “The role they have in the team is very important tactically, maybe they are the main players of Guangzhou. Also, I believe our defence knows how to face them. We have studied them and know how to neutralise them.”
The Red Knights’ status as the first UAE club to reach the final since 2005 had been placed under a cloud, Al Hilal mounting three failed appeals to the AFC and the Court of Arbitration for Sport since last month’s 4-3, last-four loss about the
eligibility of winger Oussama Assaidi.
Olaroiu said: “I don’t think it affected anyone. Because from the beginning, we knew the truth was on our side.”
Al Ahli’s route to the final
February 25-May 5
W3 D3 L0 F11 A7 GD+4 Pts12
The Red Knights went from bottom at the halfway stage to second by the end, a last-gasp double from Ahmed Khalil (right) against Tractor sending them through for the first time in the club’s history. Their matches against Al Ahli Jeddah were most noteable, drawing 3-3 at home and losing 2-1 away when Majed Hassan was unjustly dismissed.
Round of 16
May 20 Al Ahli 0-0 Al Ain
May 27 Al Ain 3-3 Al Ahli
A drab goalless opening draw at Rashid Stadium transformed into one of the most memorable contests in this year’s competition. Ahli appeared on the way out, 1-0 down at half-time. But a relentless five-minute, three-goal burst after the
break helped see off their domestic rivals on away goals.
August 26 Naft Tehran 0-1 Al Ahli
September 16 Al Ahli 2-1 Naft Tehran
Ahli were handed a dream draw against a side struggling near the bottom of the Persian Gulf Pro League and they took full advantage. Lima’s header sent them on their way in Iran, not even some awful defending from Walid Abbas in Dubai threatening an effortless progression.
September 29 Al Hilal 1-1 Al Ahli
October 20 Al Ahli 3-2 Al Hilal
A heated double header against the Saudi Arabian heavyweights was decided in the 94th minute of the second leg, Kwon Kyung-won’s deflected effort sending Rashid Stadium into raptures. The Red Knights had held their nerve in Riyadh, prior to surrending a 2-0 lead at home before the South Korean memorably struck.
Holders Al Nasr recovered from seeing Esam Dhahi dismissed and going a goal behind to claim a 2-1 victory against Al Dhafra in the Arabian Gulf Cup on Wednesday night.
A goalless first half at Al Maktoum Stadium exploded into life when the veteran defender was dismissed after he conceded a 56thminute penalty, which forward David Borral converted.
But the Blue Wave refused to be daunted, joining Group A-pacesetters Al Ahli and Al Wasl on seven points thanks to goals from under-pressure striker Nilmar and winger Jonathan Pitroipa.
With only the top two progressing to the semi-finals, it was essential for Nasr to defeat the struggling Western Knights.
An opening of few chances saw winger Jamal Maroof’s effort ruled out for offside. A rollercoaster second period began with 35-year-old Dhahi bringing down Ahmed Ali, Spaniard Borral then calmly converting from 12 yards.
The hosts wasted no time wallowing, Brazil front man Nilmar scoring just his second goal in 11 games on 62 minutes prior to Pitroipa’s tapped-in winner.
Meanwhile, striker Boris Kabi was the last-gasp hero as Dibba Al Fujairah secured the East Coast derby spoils with a 2-1 triumph against Fujairah.
Abdulla Naser broke the deadlock for the designated hosts at the shared Fujairah Stadium, heading past Wolves stand-in goalkeeper Ayyoub Omar on 27 minutes.
Humaid Ahmed then hit a low equaliser on 77 minutes, setting the stage for experienced target man Kabi to secure all three points in Group B on 90 minutes.
The UAE should rally around the faltering national team to get their 2018 World Cup-qualfication dream back on track, according to under-fire boss Mahdi Ali.
The Whites have endured a slow start in the second round of the AFC process, sitting second to Saudi Arabia in Group A after they inflicted a 2-1 defeat last month and outside the four best runners-up spots which would ensure progression with the section winners.
Preparations for a competitive double header begin tonight (18:00) with a friendly against Turkmenistan at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, ahead of the visit of Timor-Leste on November 12 and trip to Malaysia on November 17.
“I am seeking to make maximum use of the friendly against Turkmenistan,” Ali said. “It will be a good way to judge readiness. “The right of any person is to criticise and we are just as outraged as everyone about the lack of a positive result. The criticism can be positive but it should occur without exaggeration – if you do not stand with the team at this stage, when do you stand with them?”
Omar Abdulrahman will play in Al Ain’s Arabian Gulf Cup-game against Sharjah on Thursday night to retain sharpness as the playmaker is banned for the Timor-Leste match.