Will UAE’s Al-Ahli become an Asian football dynasty?
This is the first Emirati team to make the continent’s showpiece fixture for 10 years
It is difficult to envisage a moment that could possibly better - in terms of drama and captivation - Kwon Kyung-won’s stoppage-time winner to clinch Al-Ahli’s place in this season’s AFC Champions League final. An Emirati victory on Saturday, however, might historically outweigh anything that came before it.
As the first Emirati team to make the continent’s showpiece fixture for 10 years, Cosmin Olaroiu’s side face Guangzhou Evergrande of China in the final’s first leg this weekend, with a carrot of truly great incentive dangling in front of their noses. They could become the first Emirati side to win the AFC Champions League since Al-Ain’s triumph of 2003.
However, Al-Ahli and their players must not get caught up in the grand narrative of their own remarkable journey. Saturday’s first leg will certainly be a sporting event to remember, but the Emirati side cannot afford to think of their task in the context of history. Only with victory over their Chinese opponents will they be afforded that.
Regardless of whether the Dubai club lifts the continental accolade for the first time in its history, Al-Ahli will reflect on how their decision to stick with Olaroiu - despite last season’s dismal Arabian Gulf League display - has helped them on their way to becoming an Asian football dynasty. That newfound status could be consolidated over the next two weeks.
Al-Ahli’s achievement in making it to the AFC Champions League final - to be played over two legs on Nov. 7 and 21 - also has its basis in a shrewd transfer policy. A combination of top-tier - often expensive - talent, alongside players with more local roots, has allowed the club to compete on a domestic and continental scale, simultaneously.
Lima arrived in the off season from Benfica, with Brazilian forward Everton Ribeiro and South Korean defender Kyung-won also arriving ahead of the 2015 season. All three have already proven their worth, and have given Al-Ahli the kind of vitality and match-winning quality they perhaps lacked when they started their AFC Champions League campaign in February.
It is worth recounting just how Al-Ahli’s continental prospects were regarded this season when the Dubai club played their opening match in the competition against Al-Shabab. Olaroiu’s side were written off by so many, they were widely expected to fail in their efforts to make it past the group stage. After two draws from their opening three matches, that presumption was not exactly dispelled.
Since then, however, the Red Knights rebounded emphatically with wins over Uzbekistan’s Nasaf and Tractorsazi Tabriz of Iran, before the watershed victory against compatriots Al-Ain. That result was perhaps the first indication that Al-Ahli had something of a golden generation on their hands.
Still, the Al-Ghusais club will be underdogs for the AFC Champions League final against Guangzhou Evergrande - comparative behemoths of the Asian game. However, Al-Ahli already disposed of one such footballing giant in the semi-final, overcoming Saudi Arabia’s - and five-time finalists -Al-Hilal 4-3 on aggregate. The precedent has been set.
Unlike most continental competitions, the AFC Champions League final is contested over two legs - and it is something Olaroiu recognizes will be a factor. “It’s easier to play a final in one game,” he said. “In two games it’s more difficult as it looks like a qualifying game. But we have the experience of previous games, and we know what we need to do just enough.”
The Romanian coach probably rues the fact that his side will face a lengthy trip to China for the second leg - rather than the first - with footballing convention dictating that such a draw puts Al-Ahli at a disadvantage. Yet such fortune could actually favor the Emirati side.
Saturday’s first leg will give Al-Ahli the chance to find a foothold in the tie, which could prove crucial for such a streaky side. There is a risk that defeat in the first leg could leave Olaroiu’s side with too much of a deficit to overturn, but this is a team that has become familiar with risk. They scored a stoppage-time winner to get this far, after all.