Al-Ahli defeated their competitive rivals Al-Ain, 1-0, in what was a tight encounter at the 42,056-seater Zayed Sports City Stadium. It took an 87th minute header from Salmeen Khamis to seal the win for the Red Knights who have endured a very tough and disappointing season until now. Al-Ain were heavy favourites for this game, having come into the match in-form after cementing themselves at the top of the Arabian Gulf League table at the expense of Emirates FC. Ironically, Yacoub Al-Hammadi – criticised by Cosmin Olaroiu in the pre-game press conference for his bias against Al-Ahli – salvaged Al-Ahli in the last couple of minutes in what looked like a dubious call of no penalty from him, saving the Red Knights in the process.
Al-Ain shape and line-up
Al-Ain started without star striker Asamoah Gyan who was still recovering from an injury that he picked up a couple of games ago, but he was named as a substitute looking to bring in energy and intelligence during the late stages of the game. Kembo-Ekoko and Diaky Ibrahim took turns operating as a false 9. Helal Saeed returned to the lineup pairing up with Lee MJ in defensive midfield and the versatile partnership of Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem was present for Al-Ain.
Al-Ahli shape and line-up
Al-Ahli went with a surprising lineup choice of their own after Olaroiu kept record signing Everton Ribeiro out of the starting XI, keeping him as a wildcard option once the game reaches its climax (actually coming on in the dying seconds of the game). Kwon Kyung-Won returned to defensive midfield after a spell in defence and Jimenez was paired up top with the underwhelming yet energetic Ahmad Khalil.
Minimising and controlling space key to opening half hour
The opening 30 minutes was more of a cautious affair between arguably the two biggest clubs in the UAE. Al-Ahli’s shape resembled a 4-4-2 with an alternating structure depending on the movements of the former Inter Milan player Luis Jimenez. The adjustment paid its dividends since, defensively, Al-Ahli were much more secure than usual. Olaroiu used his expertise to adapt once again to the situation that his team were embroiled in and successfully nullified the opposition for the first half with only one chance against them of note.
The basis of Jimenez’s movements depended on the phases of play that Al-Ain were adjusting to, with the first and second phase of Al-Ain’s play being halted as a result of Jimenez and Khalil’s projected and vociferous pressing. Al-Ain had to play through the flanks as Khalil and Jimenez were coordinated in their harrying, unless Helal Saeed dropped in between the centre backs to aid in playing the ball out of the defence. If and once Al-Ain surpassed the oncoming press Jimenez slotted back into the #10 position to balance Al-Ahli and shift them towards a 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 had he dropped deeper than normal.
Al-Ain on the other hand, played with a higher defensive line than Al-Ahli, subsequently taking initiative and controlling most of the game’s possession. Al-Ain’s lineup possessed players efficient and creative in possession of the ball: Lee MJ, Helal Saeed, Omar Abdulrahman, Mohammed Abdulrahman and Diaky Ibrahim. These players helped them in taking control of the game and dictating a tempo; cautious, calm tempo.
This was forced upon them as without the pace of Asamoah Gyan and Miroslav Stoch, Jires Kembo-Ekoko was the only outlet that could drive against Al-Ahli with pace (with a possibility of the same from Diaky Ibrahim) and that was minimal due to their occupations as a rotating false 9 in this game.
Al-Ain shape up situationally according to Al-Ahli’s phases in possession
Al-Ain took another form of nullifying Al-Ahli’s creativity albeit playing with a very high defensive line at times, but this worked to some extent except when Ahmad Khalil exploited it a couple of times – failing to impact the scoreline, of course.
During Al-Ahli’s first phase of possession Al-Ain would press in small groups formed from their front 6 in the 4-2-3-1 or a lopsided 4-4-2. Mostly, the groups would consist of a trio that would prove to be successful due to the triangular possibilities offered from the 4-2-3-1, where the striker, central attacking midfielder and winger could press as a triumvirate with the central midfielder supporting from behind.
Once Al-Ahli were on the verge of surpassing Al-Ain’s first line of defence, The Boss would immediately drop back into a high pressing 4-1-4-1 before having a central midfielder – normally Lee MJ – slide back into the defensive midfield stratum along with Helal S and form a shield in front of the central defenders therefore nullifying any sort of Al-Ahli attacks from the centre. What Al-Ain failed to take note of although…
Al-Ahli stagnant in possession, but capitalise on high line
What the Red Knights excelled at was profiting from the suicidal high line implemented by Dalic’s men in the opening 45 minutes, and had it not been Ahmad Khalil being relied upon taking the reins up top, the score would have been different early on.
A common feature from Middle Eastern full-backs is their propensity to push forward whenever they are able to get a sniff of the ball or their opposing winger and it was no different today, with each pair of full backs acting aggressively towards their opposing flanks. This also affected the full-backs defensively with Mohammad Fayez being a key culprit in this situation. Once Al-Ahli became more direct and started to shift their focus onto the channels, Al-Ain were affected heavily as Fayez pushed up needlessly once the ball had arrived and this gave away space for the Red Knights to play the ball in and through.
Another aspect that can be easily manipulated in the Middle East is the lack of preservation of the inside channels, something Al-Ahli surprisingly secured very well today. This performance was a pivotal factor in depicting the adaptability and expertise of Olaroiu, who shifted his focus from a high line and attacking based approach to a more careful, but not conservative approach.
That was not the only time Fayez was caught out marking somewhere completely out of his zone, but another occasion where this happened kept Khalil onside and had it not been for Khaled Eisa’s (foolish) intervention by running out of his goal, the game would have probably been tilted into Al-Ahli’s favour.
Not your usual Cosmin Olaroiu performance: robust, tenacious yet wary – but it pays off in the end
Al-Ahli were extremely wary of the carnage that Al-Ain could have inflicted on them had they started off playing with an extremely high line as usual, therefore we can associate this with the fact that it was not your usual Cosmin Olaroiu performance of attacking and free-flowing football. There were occasions where Al-Ain would leave only one man on the halfway line during an attacking corner and left acres of space in the centre – something they assumed that Al-Ahli would have not capitalized on.
And that was true, Al-Ahli wanted extra security during corners that they didn’t even place Ahmad Khalil or Ismaeel Al-Hammadi in that space to exploit Al-Ain during defensive to offensive transitions. Realistically, Al-Ahli could have exploited these very easily but Cosmin knew the consequences of conceding first to a team managed by Zlatko Dalic. If Al-Ahli went down 1-0 it would have been extremely hard for them to take advantage of The Boss in the upcoming stages of the game.
This paid off in the end for Al-Ahli as the lone goal and the winning goal of the game came from their pressing – their superbly calculated and organised pressing. Al-Ahli never had more than 2 men hounding the opposing man on the ball and here they dispossessed Amoory while also keeping a solid midfield base behind them and a man in the box to take advantage of any crosses.
Salmeen Khamis, the centre back, showed intelligent movements by straying into the channels just off the near post and with no one marking him he slipped in a header to win the game for the Red Knights, adding another trophy to the glowing Middle Eastern cabinet of the astute Romanian, Cosmin Olaroiu.
Final Word: Refereeing decisions may have affected the game at the end but this is purely analysing the game from a tactical point of view, not a refereeing point of view. Al-Ahli were circumspect, with that being the key factor that propelled them to a win.