Kwon Kyung-won, third from left, is one of several Al Ahli players who are seemingly fearless on the football pitch. Marwan Naamani / AFP
Kwon Kyung-won, third from left, is one of several Al Ahli players who are seemingly fearless on the football pitch. Marwan Naamani / AFP

Gritty Al Ahli underdogs but no pushovers for Asian Champions League final second leg

GUANGZHOU, CHINA // Cosmin Olaroiu sat in front of the media, ahead of the most significant match in Al Ahli’s history, and instead of looking forward he cast the mind back.

Asked if his side held an advantage by playing the first leg of the Asian Champions League final against Guangzhou at home, the Romanian shrugged his shoulders, raised an eyebrow and offered not only an answer, but a reminder of his faith in his players.

“At this level of competition, it’s not so important,” Olaroiu said. “Of course, it will be difficult there with the pressure of the public, but in all the games after the group we got a big advantage from the away game. Al Ain, Naft Tehran and Al Hilal. We can say we adapt to the pressure.”

He has a point. Ahli’s unlikely slalom through the knockout stages has been built upon their resolve away from the Rashid Stadium, where a mental fortitude has matched their physical and technical prowess.

One-nil down to Al Ain in May’s last-16 second leg at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, they rebounded in five manic minutes immediately after half time. Three goals against their bitter rivals, putting the tie beyond them. Al Ain were down, then out.

At Naft Tehran in August, Rodrigo Lima struck the decisive blow in the first leg of the quarter-final, but in truth Ahli should have had more, won more convincingly. Where they had previously struggled in Iran, triumphing once in four visits, this time they prospered. Old liabilities, those engrained fallibilities, were confined to the past.

Ditto against Hilal in the first semi-final clash. Ahli had always struggled with the Saudi Arabians, never before tasting victory in six meetings, losing three. What is more, Hilal had eviscerated Al Ain at the same stage, at the same venue, 12 months previously.

Yet Ahli went to Riyadh, to the 53,000-strong support amid the tifos and the tumult, and they emerged with a draw that could have easily been a win. There was a steeliness about them, a grit and a gumption not usually associated with UAE clubs.

Perhaps it is passed down from Olaroiu. Perhaps it is borne from Salmeen Khamis’s default-mode tenacity, or Majed Hassan’s commitment, or Ismail Al Hammadi’s zeal, or Ahmed Khalil’s ability to conjure a late-late intervention. Most probably, it is all of those combined.

Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly reinforced by Kwon Kyung-won’s formidable presence in defence, by Everton Ribeiro’s undeniable talent, by Lima’s ruthlessness in front of goal.

It is what gives Ahli confidence as they head to Guangzhou’s Tainhe Stadium on Saturday. To borrow from Olaroiu, the biggest match in his players’ lives is an opportunity to write themselves into history, for his ‘Spartans’ to again prove their aptitude for battle.

Ahli can spin it that they hold the advantage. In the stalemate in Dubai two weeks ago, the pressure was evident, even understandable. A clearly agitated Ahli stuttered through the first half, obviously feeling the strain, the expectation, the burden.

With 0-0 secured, they still go into the return leg as the underdogs. Against the Chinese champions, the 2013 Asian champions on their own patch, that strain should alleviate somewhat. As much as a final allows it, they have less to lose than their hosts. Olaroiu has mentioned a freedom playing there, a more open encounter, more space to exploit.

At home, Guangzhou are fearsome, losing three times in 23 Champions League assignments. In the past five seasons domestically, they have lost four league matches from 75 and lifted the title each year. But they can be frail, too, losing a group game to Western Sydney Wanderers in May.

Ahli, meanwhile, have won three away matches in Asia in 21 attempts. Two of those, though, came this year, at Nasaf in Uzbekistan and at Naft.

That should burnish Ahli with the belief they can get something on Saturday, get their hands on the continent’s premier club crown. If Olaroiu has the faith, why shouldn’t they? Away days are no longer Ahli’s Achilles heel.

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