Al Ahli 3 Al Hilal 2
Ahli win on aggregate, 4-3
Al Ahli Lima 17', Ribeiro 45', Kwon Kyung-won 90'+4
Al Hilal Almeida 51', Eduardo 64'
Man of the match Everton Ribeiro (Al Ahli)
DUBAI // Al Ahli: Asian Champions League finalists. Barely, beautifully, Asian Champions League finalists.
It will no doubt take some time to sink in, scarcely believable that a club contesting the knockout stages for the very first time has made it to the verge of being crowned continental kings, but Ahli’s improbable dream is almost a reality.
Kwon Kyung-won’s injury-time goal did it; outdid Al Hilal. From within touching distance of the showpiece, to down and out, to back again. An incredible match was granted a suitably remarkable finish.
“It’s qualification, but for me it’s a little bit difficult, because against Hilal one eye cries, one eye is happy,” said Cosmin Olaroiu, the Ahli coach who once managed the Saudi Arabians, as he tried to make sense of it all.
“Of course I’m happy mostly for my players; they are heroes for what they have done. Nobody gave them a chance and now they are in the final. I told them just there that they don’t have to stop here.”
They will be forgiven for downing tools for a while, such was the effort applied at a fervent Rashid Stadium on a humid night. A 3-1 aggregate lead appeared and then disappeared, almost in an instant. Hauled level, Ahli inexplicably heaved themselves off the canvas to strike right at the death. The very death.
Everton Ribeiro swung in a hopeful free kick, the ball ricocheted off bodies, dropped to Kwon and the South Korean somehow forced it home, via a deflection. All of a sudden, the President’s Cup culprit became the Champions League conqueror.
The stadium rocked and it reverberated; Ahli, never before beyond the group stages, bounced and bounded through to next month’s final. Their history boys have another chapter to write.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of luck in football and this time it was on our side,” Olaroiu said.
“I think from what happened over the two games we deserved to qualify. And my players deserve the congratulations in the way they play and they fight and they don’t give up. They deserve the best performance in the club’s history in this kind of Champions League competition.”
At one point, their progression seemed all so certain. Rodrigo Lima and Ribeiro scored first-half goals to embellish the 1-1 draw attained in Riyadh three weeks ago, Ahli’s advantage morphing to 3-1 with only 45 minutes to go. A Brazilian double – Lima’s tap-in from Ahmed Khalil’s pinpoint cross and later Ribeiro’s expert lob – had sparked the party.
Then, Hilal fought back with their own twin Brazilian edge: Ailton Almeida’s fine turn and finish six minutes into the second half, Carlos Eduardo’s unstoppable shot from range 13 minutes later.
Unlucky for some.
But, ultimately, fortune favoured Ahli. The clock climbed to 94 minutes, Ribeiro carved the chance, Kwon seized it. The hosts had their winner, the most unlikely of winners. Bedlam after the goal, bedlam after the final whistle.
In the post-match mayhem, Giorgos Donis was asked if he feared for his job as Hilal coach. The Greek, visibly shocked by what had earlier transpired, bit back.
“Maybe, I don’t know,” he said. “We play, like, 30 games and we won 25. We played in the semi-final and we lost in the last minute. I’m very proud of my team because they worked very hard in all of this period. I know it’s hard, but we have a lot of targets, to win every target, and this question, at this time, is very stupid.”
Ahli’s future, though, looks bright. They are Asian Champions League finalists; only the second UAE club to boast such a claim. It was scarcely believable, but beautiful all the same.
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