Yokohama v Al Ain: Maverick keeper Khalid Essa key to UAE club's chances of ACL glory

A player capable of both the sublime and absurd, the UAE stopper is aiming to cement his place in Asian football history when Al Ain face Yokohama F Marinos

Goalkeeper and captain Khalid Essa has been instrumental in Al Ain's march to the Asian Champions League final. AP
Powered by automated translation

Khalid Essa was downright. Defiant even.

Speaking after Al Ain had cast out Al Hilal from the Asian Champions League semi-final, with a certitude no doubt stiffened by his man-of-the-match award, the UAE goalkeeper used the moment to defend his position as steadfastly as he had protected his team’s goal.

“I would like to say, I know my performance tonight was good,” Essa said. “There have been down times, difficult times, but I have been working on restoring my level.

“In the times I was performing lower than usual there were claims and requests to take me out of the team, but during that period I was trusted by the coach, by the team management and by the staff.

“They gave me the confidence so that I could return to my usual performance and quality.”

Essa’s performance in Riyadh had certainly been quality. It had needed to be. Faced with Hilal’s relentless advance at Kingdom Arena, as the record four-time winners hunted a goal that would take the semi-final tie into extra time, Al Ain blockaded their goal and bit down on their gum shield.

As the last line of defence, Essa, their captain, was superb. He denied Michael when the Hilal winger surged through on goal, then again prevented the Brazilian’s near-post effort from nestling in the net, saving at full stretch.

With two minutes of the 99 remaining, Essa leapt to his left to keep out Ali Al Bulaihi’s point-blank header. Deservedly, he was named the game’s standout performer. His contribution in securing Al Ain’s place in the Champions League final, the club’s fourth but first in almost a decade, had been crucial.

Yet, as Essa himself reminded, it is not necessarily always as such. In the quarter-final, after Al Ain had stymied Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr at home – Essa made a trio of fine stops to thwart the five-time Ballon d’Or winner – he then played a chief role in nearly throwing it away.

In the return fixture in Riyadh, Al Ain scored twice to race into a 3-0 aggregate lead, only for Essa to offer Nassr a way back in. He was at fault for all three of the Saudi side’s goals, taking the tie into extra time, and then, to penalties.

In the ensuing shoot-out, though, Essa redeemed himself. He blocked brilliantly Marcelo Brozovic’s opening penalty, Al Ain were flawless, and eventually they won through.

Al Ain beat Al Hilal to rach ACL final

On reflection, the two-legged tie encapsulated Essa. Capable of the sublime, at times the absurd. While his shot-stopping sustains at age 34, his reflexes still nimble, his distribution is often poor, his decision-making sometimes questionable.

Four days after Essa’s Hilal heroics, in the crucial Adnoc Pro League clash with Shabab Al Ahli that pitted second against third, he was closed down as he attempted a short pass from his goal, and then charged out to concede a penalty.

Al Ain ultimately lost 2-1, conceding more ground not only to second-placed Shabab Al Ahli, but to league leaders Al Wasl. Again, Essa had been culpable.

However, given his position and longevity, it is unfair to label him a liability. Having come through Al Jazira’s youth academy – he joined aged 11 – the Dubai-born Essa was part of the club’s double-winning squad in 2011, albeit as understudy to first-choice goalkeeper Ali Kasheif.

Seeking a regular playing role and sensing Khaseif’s security as the club’s No 1, Essa departed in 2013, a second President’s Cup medal as deputy in tow. Presented with a host of suitors, he selected Al Ain.

Highly rated, Essa blossomed in the Garden City. He stands now as a three-time UAE champion with his current club, winning the first top-flight crown there in his second season. In his debut campaign, he had already lifted a third President’s Cup. A fourth arrived in 2018.

That year, Essa was integral to Al Ain’s historic run to the Fifa Club World Cup final. In the semi-final, at their Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, he clawed away River Plate’s fifth and final penalty in the shoot-out, securing Al Ain’s place in history as the first Emirati side to reach the Club World Cup showpiece. There, they finished runner-up to Real Madrid.

As the UAE’s most decorated club, Al Ain are accustomed to writing their name in the record books. They stand alone as the only team from the Emirates to be crowned Asian champions, their success coming in 2003, right at the dawn of the Champions League era.

Al Ain have contested the final twice since, in 2005 and 2016. Essa was there for the latter, an agonising 3-2 aggregate defeat to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. As such, he is one of only three players who remain in the squad for the upcoming final with Yokohama F Marinos. Entrusted with the armband by manager Hernan Crespo, he is the only guaranteed starter.

It is a function Essa performs for both club and country (he eventually usurped Khaseif in the national team, serving as captain there also).

It serves, too, to underline Essa’s importance. Typically, he leads the on-pitch, pre-match huddle, be it for the UAE or Al Ain, his motivational rally the final call to arms. His experience and, for the most part, expertise, is for sure appreciated.

Undoubtedly, both will be required in Yokohama on Saturday and then in Al Ain two weeks later. Another decisive display would elevate Essa among the club’s greats and raise Al Ain back atop Asian club football’s podium. For it has been too long.

Essa, collector of every other trophy domestically, needs the continental crown to complete the set. Perhaps only then, the respect and reverence will be secure.

Updated: May 10, 2024, 4:35 AM