When they step out at the Tianhe Stadium on Saturday to take on Guangzhou Evergrande in the second leg of the 2015 AFC Champions League final, Al Ahli will be doing all they can to show that their place in the continental showpiece owes nothing to good luck. Adding even more of an incentive will be the fact that a berth at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 will be theirs should they prevail.
The reigning United Arab Emirates champions won through to the knockout phase of the Champions League after finishing runners-up in Group D with eight points, beating Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi to second place thanks to their superior goal difference.
Their opponents in the last 16 were domestic rivals Al Ain, with the Dubai giants edging through on the away-goals rule after a 3-3 draw in the second leg. Next up for Al Ahli came a 3-1 aggregate defeat of Naft Tehran of Iran, followed by a 4-3 win over two legs against last year’s runners-up Al Hilal, a triumph that teed up a final against Chinese title holders Guangzhou, the 2013 Asian champions.
The two played out a goalless draw in the first leg in Dubai at the start of November, a result that has not dampened the faith of Al Ahli’s Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu, who believes his side can get a result in China PR, an occasion on which his players will be drawing on the experience they have acquired in their run to the final.
“We played two matches in west Asia against two very well-supported teams and that will help us a lot when we take on Guangzhou,” said the former Steaua Bucharest coach. “We’ve played at packed stadiums in Iran and Riyadh, and we’re used to playing under pressure. I can tell you that the Guangzhou fans won’t have any effect on us.”
The 46-year-old coach said he was pleased with the goalless first-leg stalemate, especially with the away-goals rule now working in Al Ahli’s favour should they find the target in Guangzhou.
An experienced coach who has won league titles in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Olaroiu added: “Our objective in the first leg was not to concede, though we would have preferred to have won the game and to have a lead to defend in the return match.
“Yet even though we didn’t manage to score, we didn’t give anything away at the back either. We’ve accomplished half our mission and we know that if we want to win the trophy, we’re going to have to score in Guangzhou.”
Inspiration between the posts
Olaroiu’s team head to China on level terms thanks in no small part to the first-leg exploits of their goalkeeper Ahmed Mahmoud, who kept Evergrande’s Brazilian forwards at bay with a series of fine saves. Though the Chinese outfit were a man to the good in the closing stages, neither the competition’s leading scorer Ricardo Goulart nor his strike partner Elkeson could find a way past an inspired Mahmoud.
The custodian’s performance was his latest compelling contribution to Al Ahli’s impressive campaign. Handed the gloves in the middle of the group phase, following the six-match suspension handed to first-choice keeper Majed Naser, Mahmoud has since made the job his own.
Nicknamed Dida on account of his likeness to the former Brazil keeper, who formed part of the side that won the world title at Korea/Japan 2002, Mahmoud had this to say about the eventful first leg: “We can’t say we’re satisfied because we play to win in every game. A draw is still a good result, though, and it’s good not to concede at home. The pressure is now on our rivals."
Looking ahead to the return, he added: “We’re going into the game in China without any fear because we’ve already played in front of capacity crowds and we’re used to pressure. Guangzhou are a good side but we’ll be going all out to win and lift the trophy.”