Dubai: Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu said the Red Knights still have a chance to qualify from their Asian Champions League (ACL) group despite a disappointing goalless draw at home to Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun on Monday.
The Al Ghusais club are now second, level on four points with third-placed Al Taawoun, halfway through the group stages, while Iran’s Esteghlal are top on six points after their 2-0 win at home to Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent, who are bottom on three points.
Al Ahli face an uphill struggle to qualify as they now face both Al Taawoun and Esteghlal away on April 11 and April 25, before a crucial home tie with Lokomotiv on May 9.
“I think Esteghlal have more chance [of qualifying] now,” said Olaroiu. “But we still have chances as well, we still have hope and will compete and fight for it.”
As 2015 losing ACL finalists and Arabian Gulf League (AGL) defending champions, Al Ahli were expected to make light work at home to the ACL debutants, who have only qualified because fellow Saudi side Al Ittihad were disqualified after failing to meet AFC club licensing requirements.
Both sides hit the woodwork with miscued crosses. Al Ahli’s best chance came when Makhete Diop hit the crossbar with a cross-cum-shot before the interval, while Al Taawoun’s Lucian Sanmaertean hit the back post directly from an inswinging corner.
Excusing his side’s performance, Olaroiu said: “We didn’t play our best because we have a lot of problems. Over the last two weeks we’ve had four tough games against Lokomotiv, Al Jazira, Al Dhafra and now Al Taawoun, and we have very few players available due to injury.
“That said, I thank the players for their spirit and motivation for playing through the pain, everyone sacrificed for the team.
“I hope with the whole squad we will have more possibility in the next game, it was just unfortunate what remained of Al Ahli in this game.”
There’s now a break of over three weeks before the next AGL game and it’s a month until the next ACL match, during which time the UAE national team will play Japan and Australia in ongoing World Cup qualifiers.
But Olaroiu’s injury fears show no signs of abating as the majority of the UAE squad is made up of Al Ahli players. The only solace for Olaroiu is the fact that Al Ahli actually have two more points than they did at this stage back in 2015, when they went on to reach the final, after a similarly slow start.
Al Taawoun coach Constantine Galca acknowledged that Al Ahli weren’t at their best.
“Al Ahli had some players playing with injuries today and if they were fully fit they could have been better.
“For us a point is satisfying. Our goal is to qualify but this is a very difficult group so we will go step-by-step and see what happens.”