Al Ahli's amazing Champions League adventure

Al Ahli are looking to make history and win their first AFC Champions League crown, but just how has the club with little expectations made it all the way to Asia's showpiece event?

We've all seen the photos comparing Dubai of the early 1990s to what the city is today.

The transformation is breathtaking if only for its speed, but even more so when you consider some of the significant architectural developments that have taken place - The Burj Al Arab, Palm Jumeirah, 'The World' and Burj Khalifa to name just a few. All are modern day marvels and all faced the same criticism when first proposed - impossible. It's a claim that has seen Dubai labeled in some quarters as The Impossible City.

Under Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum they've made a habit of achieving the impossible and proving the doubters wrong.

And so it is with football.

Al Ahli Dubai, one of four Arabian Gulf League (AGL) clubs based in UAE's biggest city, stand on the verge of winning the AFC Champions League for the first time in their history, a feat many thought impossible when they started their campaign back in February.

After starting the tournament at the tail end of a disastrous title defence in the AGL, where they would eventually finish seventh, they were considered only an outside chance of advancing past the group stage, let alone progressing any further.

“There really wasn't much (expectation),” John McAuley, sports journalist at UAE newspaper The National, told FourFourTwo. “Ahli have never been particularly successful in the ACL, and their form was woeful leading into it.

“They had just signed (Everton) Ribeiro, Kwon (Kyung-won) and (Ossama) Assaidi, but they still lacked a goal scorer. That had been their biggest problem.”

There were also reports of dressing room disharmony and coach Cosmin Olaroiu was under intense pressure to keep his job. He knew the Champions League was important, imploring his players not to waste the opportunity.

“This is a big opportunity to show we can reach a good level despite all the problems we’ve faced,” he said in February. “Starting a new competition means we have to believe and try our best to pass the group, which is our target.”

Their campaign could hardly have started in worse fashion, conceding in the first 10 seconds, after a moment goalkeeper Majed Nasser would rather forget against the Jeddah-based Al Ahli – a nightmare for those writing the match report.

But rather than crumble as they had done during the AGL season, the Red Knights showed some fighting spirit, especially after captain Luis Jimenez was sent off with 15 minutes remaining, coming from behind three times to earn an entertaining 3-3 draw.

“Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate these mistakes,” Olaroiu told the press after the match. “But we showed character in the game, created opportunities even with one man less for 15 or 20 minutes and could have scored a fourth.”

They weren’t able to replicate that form in their following two matches, succumbing to a solitary goal against Tractor Sazi in Iran, before returning to the Rashid Stadium to play out a 0-0 draw against Uzbekistan’s Nasaf Qarshi.

At the mid-way point of the group stages they were sitting last, staring at a an early exit as they travelled to Uzbekistan for the return-leg with Nasaf looking for their first win of the group stage. Their task was made harder given the suspension of defender Salmeen Khamis and exciting winger Ismail Al Hammadi.

“What I have seen until now, Nasaf is a very-well-organised team who know exactly how they play,” Olaroiu said. “It was very difficult for us to score against them.”

And so it would prove again, but ten minutes from time Brazilian international Everton Ribeiro found space on the edge of the box, cut inside and fired in a shot. Due some luck, his shot took a deflection and wrong-footed Eldorbek Suyunov in goal. As it would turn out that goal would be decisive.

A 2-1 loss to Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia meant it would come down to the final match at home to Tractor Sazi. Only a win would do, but they needed Al Ahli to either draw or win against Nasaf.

Down 2-1 and inexplicably staring at defeat with just over ten minutes remaining, a quick fire brace from Ahmed Khalil saved their blushes and earned them a hard-fought 3-2 win. A 0-0 draw between Nasaf and Al Ahli meant the Red Knights would finish second behind the other Al Ahli, ahead of Nasaf only on head-to-head, thanks to that late Everton Ribeiro goal in matchday four.

“Today, we accomplished the most important target this season and I’d like to congratulate my players and everyone connected to the club,” Olaroiu said after the match. “It wasn’t easy with all the problems we’ve had, but thank god in the end we got what we wanted.”

As luck would have it, their Round of 16 opponents would be their biggest local rival in the UAE – Al Ain.

“At the time, Al Ain were heavy favourites,” McAuley recalled. “They were easily the best team domestically, while Ahli were only just beginning to show real form.”

The opening leg in Dubai ended in a 0-0 stalemate. At home most expected Al Ain to advance. An early goal to Asamoah Gyan gave the home side the advantage. But a five-minute blitz early in the second half, in which Al Ahli scored three times, completely changed the complexion of the tie. While Al Ain would fight back the match ended 3-3 and Ahli were through to the quarter-finals.

The arrival of Lima in the summer break was met with great excitement, but no one could have predicted the impact he would have, despite the promises of the man himself at the time.

“I will put all my energy into making it a success,” he told the Al Ahli website after signing. “I hope that I will repay everyone’s faith in me. I know I have joined a big club and I hope to be able to live up to the responsibility.”

It was his goal that gave Al Ahli the win in their quarter-final first-leg in Iran against Naft Tehran, backing that up in the second-leg at home in Dubai which saw Al Ahli cruise to a 3-1 aggregate win to set up a semi-final against last year’s beaten finalist Al Hilal.

Once again it was that man Lima in the first-leg, also away from home, who proved the difference. His powerful header gave the Red Knights a 1-0 lead, and an all-important away goal. And while they eventually conceded ten minutes from time, they returned home with a positive result in their pocket.

The second-leg can only be described as a classic game of two halves. Al Ahli dominated the first-half and deservedly took a 2-0 lead into half-time thanks to goals from, you guessed it, Lima and Everton Ribeiro. But they crumbled in the second-half, conceding two goals early in the second half to give the ascendency back to the Saudi giants.

But as they have done throughout their campaign, and as Dubai has done for the last few decades, they once again proved the doubters wrong. With time all but up, Korean defender Kwon Kyung-won became the hero as he fired the ball into the net, with the help of a deflection, to send Al Ahli into the final.

“I’m happy mostly for my players; they are heroes for what they have done,” Olaroiu said after the match. “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.”

From a campaign that had been on life support midway through the group stage, to a spot in the final it’s been a remarkable turnaround in just a few short months for the ambitious club.

According to McAuley, there are two main reasons the club has been able to turn their fortunes around – a pair of Brazilians.

“It's hard to understate how important these two (Everton Ribeiro and Lima) have been,” he said.

“Ribeiro has become the AGL's best playmaker alongside Omar Abdulrahman - although it did take him a few months to settle (and) Lima's record speaks for itself.

“Ahli have arguably the best collection of Emiratis, although Al Ain would argue to the contrary, so complementing that with genuinely talented foreign players was always going to take them to the next level.

“They've momentum now, too, and believe they will score in every match - vastly different to last season.”

Can that momentum take them all the way to the title?

“There's an acknowledgment that Guangzhou are the much bigger side, with far greater resources,” McAuley said. “For me, it feels like Hilal was Ahli's final. The Saudis are Gulf rivals; far more experienced and had defeated Al Ain in the semis last season.

“Ahli know they're up against it this month, but with Lima and Ribeiro they believe they're always a chance.”

If they need any further inspiration they need only to step outside their front door and take a look at the Dubai skyline. In just over 20 years the city has transformed itself into a bustling internationally renowned city, all the while proving the doubters and critics wrong.

Al Ahli will go into the final as underdogs, but that’s just how they like it.