DUBAI // It seems there may be more to this Majed Naser fellow, after all.
The Al Ahli goalkeeper, banned last year initially for 17 matches and then for six months, was supposed to be nothing more than the bad boy of UAE football, yet in a pair of perfect performances for his new side has provided more than a gentle reminder of his talents.
If two saves in last month's President's Cup penalty shoot-out victory against Al Dhafra did not offer concrete evidence of his ability, then Friday night's scoreless Etisalat Cup encounter with Al Shabab certainly did.
Naser represented a constant thorn in the side of Ahli's now-routine rivals - the two clubs, separated by a few kilometres, have met 10 times in 15 months - so much so that for much of the second half, Marcos Paqueta seemed ready to tear out heavy chunks of his thick, silver hair.
It made up for a largely lacklustre opening 45 minutes when the Shabab coach, or anyone else for that matter, would have been forgiven for catching up on some much-needed shuteye following the New Year's celebrations.
This was already the third tussle between the two teams this season, although the six-goal fare served on the very same pitch back in October was never in danger of being replicated.
Ahli may now be all but out of the tournament and they were shorn of Grafite, their top scorer and talisman, courtesy of a six-match ban imposed last week for elbowing an opponent. Despite the appearance of Luis Jimenez and Achille Emana the hosts failed to test Abdulla Darwish, the Shabab goalkeeper, even once until the final minutes.
While Darwish could have spent the majority of the Group C clash chatting with photographers camped behind his goal, Naser was busy attracting the flashes of the camera at the other end.
The 28 year old foiled the visiting attack six times in the second period, none of which could be described as routine.
Hassan Ibrahim and Azizbek Haydarov were thwarted from long range and Dawood Ali was denied a near-certain goal, but it was a double save on the hour that drew gasps from the fans.
First Essa Obaid, the Shabab frontman, has his close-range header pushed away and then, with Ahli's defence dazed, Esam Dhahi met Ali's cross with the goal at his mercy. Naser, though, shifting in the opposite direction, somehow managed to throw out an arm and palm the ball to safety.
With the former UAE No 1 in this form - if it wasn't for past indiscretions, he would no doubt be with his national team at the Gulf Cup - Ahli remain in very safe hands indeed.
"He was amazing," said a frustrated Paqueta afterwards. "The best player on the pitch."
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