Al-Ahli shifts UAE dynamics in win against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal
The temptation to ascribe wider, over-arcing meaning to Al Ahli’s victory on Tuesday is profound
History can take just a few short minutes to achieve - but even by that line, Al Ahli appeared to have run out of time in their AFC Champions League semi-final. It was then, however, that the UAE club scrawled their name in the record books - and they only needed seconds, not minutes, to do so.
Having let slip a two-goal lead to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, giving the visitors to the Rashid Stadium the advantage, Kwon Kyung-won struck deep into stoppage-time to send Al Ahli into the competition’s final. And so Cosmin Olaroiu’s side became the first UAE side to make the AFC Champions League’s showpiece fixture since Al Ain made it that far in 2005.
Kyung-won’s winner, via the deflection of Habib Fardan’s back, will go down as one of the greatest, and certainly most dramatic, moments in the history of UAE football. The South Korean’s goal also dispelled a indignity which would have hung heavy around the necks of Al Ahli’s players, as the team that surrendered leads in both legs of the semi-final. Now, however, they will go down as the side that had the grit to recover from such a set-back.
The temptation to ascribe wider, over-arcing meaning to Al Ahli’s victory on Tuesday is profound, and the Dubai club’s achievement in making the final made a statement about the development of the UAE game. For so long the Gulf nation has carried something of an inferiority complex when up against Saudi Arabian teams, but that dynamic has shifted in recent years - and has shifted further with Al Ahli’s win.
However, the most compelling tale encapsulating the club’s AFC Champions League success is the one that stories the development of an exceptional team under the stewardship of Olaroiu. As a side they are truly worthy of their place in the continent’s biggest and most prestigious game, and have defied the odds to get there.
Even the club’s own fans believed progression to the AFC Champions League final to be something of an impossible task: they said so in their pre-match banner, which read: “Together we can reach the impossible.” That illustrated the gravity of the situation in which Al Ahli found themselves, especially when a two-goal lead was conceded.
And yet, against a side Olaroiu not so long ago described as “the best in Asia”, the hosts found a way to come out on top. At times their 4-4-2 shape was exposed - particularly at the start of the second half - but with the likes of Lima and Everton Ribeiro leading the frontline Al Ahli can trouble team continent-wide.
In the competition’s final (to be played on November 7th and 21st) Al Ahli will face either Guangzhou Evergrande from China or Japan’s Gamba Osaka - presenting Olaroiu’s side with one last obstacle. Even after Al Ahli’s success, only twice have an Emirati side made the final of the AFC Champions League. The country has still largely underachieved in Asia-wide competition, but with victory over a Saudi side UAE football has at least exorcised some insecurities.
Al Ahli were deposed as Arabian Gulf League champions last season, losing their title to Al Ain, but their development as a top-tier outfit is better depicted by their achievement in making next month’s AFC Champions League final. Tuesday’s result wasn’t a fluke, but the culmination of a progression that has been a long time in the making.
Emirati sides have pushed against the continental glass ceiling for some time now - following on from Al Ain’s crushing defeat at the semi-stage last year. However, with Al Ahli’s victory they might finally have smashed through. Triumph in the final could consolidate that newly established status.