How UAE football might be overcoming its insecurities

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Al-Ahli head coach Cosmin Olaroiu insisted before Tuesday’s clash against Al-Hilal that his team were under “no pressure at all.” However, with his side 1-0 up just minutes from full-time in their AFC Champions League semi-final first leg - played in front of nearly 62,000 Saudi supporters - the Romanian must have at least felt the gravity of the situation.

Al-Ahli were unable to hold on to their lead, with Al-Hilal finding an equalizer after 83 minutes. The second leg is to be played in Dubai on Oct. 20. While Olaroiu was surely content with a draw to take into the return fixture, the latter exchanges in Riyadh countered any assumption that Al-Ahli had already done the job.

Olaroiu described Al-Hilal as “the best team in Asia” ahead of the semi-final fixture. While they did not demonstrate as much on Tuesday, Al-Ahli are still considered underdogs in their efforts to make the AFC Champions League final for the first time. The second leg will, in essence, be a one-off 90-minute showdown, even with Al-Ahli taking a valuable away goal into the match.

However, by returning from Riyadh with a 1-1 draw, Al-Ahli went some way to overcoming the inferiority complex that Emirati sides have sometimes shown in continental competition. The Arabian Gulf League (AGL) boasts some of the strongest squads in the Asian game, yet only once in the past 10 years has an Emirati team made the AFC Champions League final (Al-Ain in 2005). The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has underachieved in that regard.

Saudi competition

Even when viewing Tuesday’s semi-final with a shorter scope, Al-Ahli’s draw against Al-Hilal exorcized some insecurities for the AGL. The King Fahd International Stadium has proved something of a torture chamber for UAE teams in recent times, with a second-half collapse at the same venue ending Al-Ain’s hopes of making the AFC Champions League final last season.

It is not just UAE club football that has suffered at the hands of their Saudi counterparts of late. The country’s national team endured defeat to their Saudi rivals at last year’s Gulf Cup, where the UAE fought back from two goals down, only for Saudi Arabia to emerge 3-2 winners, and with a place in the final.

It is tempting to draw over-arching conclusions from such a contest, given the significance of Al-Ahli’s draw in Saudi Arabia. However, it should be noted that the Dubai side rode the crest of their own fortune for much of the match, with Al-Hilal even passing up a penalty kick. They might not be afforded such luck in the second leg.

Nonetheless, Tuesday’s result was an impressive one for Olaroiu’s side, especially considering Al-Hilal’s 100-percent start to the Saudi Pro League season. The performance of newly-signed Brazilian striker Lima - who headed home Al-Ahli’s away goal in Riyadh - will have been of particular satisfaction to his Romanian boss.

With such presence in attack, the Dubai side had something of a release for when the pressures of the often-frenzied King Fahd International Stadium got too much. They will likely need that again on Oct. 20.

If the AGL is to provide its first AFC Champions League finalist in a decade, its representatives will need to demonstrate maturity and self-assurance, something UAE sides have lacked in continental competition in recent years. However, they might have found it in a side making their first foray into the knock-rounds.

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