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Al-Ahli Dubai: The Biggest Match in their History

The time has come for Al-Ahli Dubai. Henk Ten Cate, David O’Leary and Quique Flores are some of the names that have attempted to emulate Al-Ahli’s current run in the Asian Champions League. Yet Cosmin Olaroiu stands above all, proving himself as one of the most intelligent managers in the region and on the continent. His reign at Al-Ahli will exceed 850 days by Saturday, the day of the AFC CL Final.

It is key to note that Olaroiu’s previous managerial stints in the Middle East have never seen him exceed two years (761 days, to be exact) at one team’s post. Cosmin’s philosophy in the Arabic media was touted as: “win a trophy and leave the club”. 7 trophies won, combined, during his time at Al-Hilal, Al-Sadd and Al-Ain established himself as one of the region’s most coveted managers.

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At the end of the 2012/13 season, he had departed the monstrous Al-Ain team (that he built) that later went on to finish an embarrassing 6th under the guidance of Quique Flores. Olaroiu needn’t travel far, with an hour and a half’s drive to Dubai being his next destination. Al-Qusais, Deira, Dubai: the location of the Rashid Stadium housing Al-Ahli, which holds a capacity of just under 10,000.

His love for trophies has been never ending since 2005. His time at Steaua Bucharest instigated his trophy-winning spree, winning one every consecutive year starting off with the Romanian League and most recently the UAE Super Cup against his former club Al-Ain.

Nevertheless, there has always been one category of trophies that Cosmin Olaroiu failed to win. A continental trophy; notably the Asian Champions League. Even his time at the mighty Al-Ain and Al-Hilal haven’t resulted in a decent and deep run into the competition (besides the 2007 AFC CL).

It is ironic that in Olariou’s worst ever season as a football manager in an 8-year Gulf stay (Al-Ahli finished in a dire 7th position during the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League season), the serious Romanian has taken them to the AFC CL Final. On the way to this stage, the Red Knights have outfought local rivals Al-Ain, Arabian football giants Al-Hilal and a promising Naft Tehran. Al-Ahli faced a mixture of experience, youth and power. It certainly hasn’t been an easy ride.

It was filled with gasps, sighs, and screams. Majed Nasser began the AFC CL 2015 campaign with a blunder of the highest order! He had completely missed the ball, allowing it to enter the net via a pass from his own teammates. Opponents Al-Ahli Jeddah took the lead, but a thriller and Ismaeel Al-Hammadi revival helped Al-Ahli to earn a solitary point – in a match that saw 6 goals.

A loss to Tractor Sazi in Tabriz coupled with a stalemate against lowly Nasaf Qarshi in Dubai embarrassed the team and started to slowly ruin their campaign. They were weak in the league, weak in attack and problems were arising from all angles. A 90th minute winner in Jeddah for the Saudi version of Al-Ahli all but eliminated Al-Ahli, they were in desperate need of two wins in their next two games.

New signing Everton Ribeiro was slowly being embedded into the team and his late substitute appearances were lessening as he firmly placed himself into the starting spots of the team. His long shot, albeit deflected, helped Al-Ahli to a valuable away win in Uzbekistan. A win over already-eliminated Tractor Sazi in Dubai, where the latter would still garner large support, would ensure themselves a Round of 16 spot.

Tractor Sazi scored first much to the delight of the Iranian support, but Al-Ahli came back in the second half with fight. Habib Fardan changed the scope of the game, and linked up expertly with Everton Ribeiro to open the scoring. It was only 5 minutes until Tractor re-took the lead. Saeed Jassim, the young Al-Ahli striker, came on to add pace up front. It worked, Al-Ahli had equalised and needed a solitary goal to assure their fans.

Saeed Jassim failed to convert a golden chance, a chance that would put him in the history books of Al-Ahli, Emirati football and the Asian Champions League – Cosmin was afraid. All he had worked for, the Champions League, would be taken away at this moment. Al-Ahli’s golden boy popped up and scored his 2nd header of the game; Ahmed Khalil had successfully taken the Reds into the next round! In front of a meager 3,000 fans, the team broke their long-lasting ‘record’ of never entering the knockout rounds. The next problem: UAE Champions Al-Ain.

Asamoah Gyan’s goals dried up (large part going down to his injuries) and Al-Ain finished the season off insignificantly despite being crowned as the league’s Champions. Al-Ahli were facing a powerful Al-Ain, but not the one with the same might under Cosmin Olaroiu.

This shed light onto Olaroiu and what he had in mind to nullify this Al-Ain team. A 0-0 draw followed at home in Dubai, in what was viewed a very decent result. Cosmin made sure that Al-Ahli scored under any circumstances during the away leg in Al-Ain. Asamoah Gyan opened the scoring just five minutes in, and that game stayed at its pace for the rest of the half. “Ainawi” fans were comfortable, but weren’t ready for what was to come.

Cosmin Olaroiu’s team talks spurred his Knights on as they scored 3 in the space of 5 minutes to announce their 3-1 lead, just 9 minutes after Al-Ain fans were becoming more assured with victory. Goals came via none other than Ahmed Khalil (2), and centre back Salmeen Khamis. Asamoah Gyan scored another, in the exact minute that Khalil scored his first against Tractor Sazi. Yet unlike Al-Ahli’s previous situation with Tractor, Al-Ain required two goals to qualify. Rashed Essa inserted a glimmer of hope in the Zaeem’s fans’ hearts by scoring the equaliser in minute 92, but Al-Ahli held on to a historic win.

As predicted by our Iranian writer Sina Saemian, Al-Ahli breezed past Naft Tehran with relative ease despite enduring a late scare in the second leg. An away win at the Azadi stadium was enough to see off the challengers. Up next, Al-Hilal in the semi-finals – the club that lost narrowly to WSW in 2014, in the AFC CL final.

The story surrounding this game was how much Al-Hilal would beat Al-Ahli by, as this was the latter’s first ever appearance at this stage. Al-Ain faced Al-Hilal in the exact same context during the AFC CL 2014; drubbed 3-0 in the process. Therefore, a team with relatively no experience would surely be thrashed? Unfortunately for the doubters, it was not. Al-Ahli opened the scoring through Lima (notice the pattern…), and after the dubious refereeing decision surrounding Salmeen Khamis’ handball in the box (or was it outside the box?) Al-Hilal grabbed an equaliser towards the end of the game. An away goal in Riyadh was certainly not a bad template for the “Ahlawi”.

The return match was nothing short of frantic. Rodrigo Lima (do we have to do this every time he scores?) and Everton Ribeiro collaborated towards Al-Ahli’s 2-0 first half lead in Dubai. With thousands of Al-Hilal fans stuck outside the stadium – only 1,000 were allowed in the away stand – the pressure was all on Al-Ahli. Would they have succumbed to the Hilal pressure, or confirm their status as contenders?

The former for the first part, before fighting their way to AFC CL final status courtesy of a 94th minute winner by Kwon Kyung Won. An unheralded figure at the club but one of their best players, Kwon has been a revelation at the back. Whether it is in defensive midfield or in the heart of defence, Kwon is consistent.

It is important to note that Kwon scored an own goal in the 88th minute of the UAE President’s Cup Final in May to hand Al-Nasr a chance at the cup. After the Reds’ fierce rivals trailed for most of the game, a cross into Kwon was embarrassingly kicked into his own net. Al-Nasr subsequently won on penalties. So he’s essentially turned himself from zero to hero, although that is not a true indicator of his importance to the team.

Al-Hilal’s two-goal comeback during the second half is a real problem for Al-Ahli. In the middle of the second half they tend to deviate away from their real performance that would have been stronger in the first half. Although, not anyone could’ve saved Carlos Eduardo’s powerful equaliser – Al-Ahli fans just have Kwon to thank for everything.

In hindsight, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the Red Knights. This weekend, they face their toughest challenge hailing from China. Will Cosmin Olaroiu be up to the challenge?

About Hamoudi

The man behind the idea of Based in Dubai, Hamoudi will bring you an unprecedented level of coverage of the Alfa Lebanese League in English as well as the best of the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League. With dreams of working in the coaching industry in the near future, don’t be surprised by the amount of tactical analysis that he works on to bring in a modern day feel to the very scarce analysis on Middle Eastern Football. (PS: Beware of his rants about the ignominious status of football in his native country Lebanon…).

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