AL AIN // Diego Maradona promised a revamped side, and he kept his word. Two new foreigners made their UAE debuts in the President's Cup quarter-final, and two youngsters up from the reserve team did, too. Four players changed from the Al Wasl side of five days before, six players swapped in from the 11 who started against Al Wahda just 12 days previous.
The changes, however, did not halt Wasl's descent into a lost season. Fernando Baiano scored twice and Mohammed Shaibah, the Oman international on loan from Wasl, added a third as Wahda advanced to the semi-final with a 3-2 victory last night at Al Ain.
Wasl now find themselves out of the President's Cup and, according to Maradona himself, without hope of winning the league after salvaging only two draws from the past five Pro League matches. So, what does Wasl's celebrity coach aspire to now?
"We definitely will continue to work and to prepare ourselves, especially for the league," Maradona said. "There will be reinforcements. This is not the final squad you will see at this end of the season or next year."
"The new recruits played a very good match, in their first match. [Juan Manuel] Olivera also is playing quite well, and [Mariano] Donda, and we are happy with them. We will build a stronger team to be able to compete in next year's competition."
Maradona, who has a two-year contract, threw the new boys Mohammed Reza Khalatbari, the Iranian forward, and Juan Ignacio Mercier, a midfielder from Argentina, directly into the line-up. Khalatbari proved feisty and fleet of foot, but he disappeared from the game in the second half. Mercier seemed a bit lost, and had little impact.
Wasl were the better team for the first 47 minutes, leading up to Olivera's goal on a pass from Mohammed Jamal.
"We had the game in control, especially in the first half," Maradona said. "We definitely came to win here, and we were mostly in control but we couldn't convert that into the win. Their goal right after our goal was important. Our team found it difficult to come back into the game, and it led to a loss of focus and after the third goal ... well, this is very disappointing."
Baiano answered Olivera's goal barely a minute later, heading in a cross from Mahmoud Khamis.
Wahda went ahead in the 73rd minute, and must have been a bitter moment for Wasl, because Shaibah, the player Maradona gave up on after one match, scored it, heading in a free kick from Khamis.
Josef Hickersberger, the Wahda coach, said Shaibah has been a critical performer for the Abu Dhabi side ever since they obtained him.
After Wasl dropped Shaibah, Hickersberger called Claude LeRoy, the French coach of the Oman national team, to ask about the central defender. "I asked him about Shaibah. And he knows him well from Oman. And he told me that Shaibah is good enough to start in the Premier League, and when he told me that, we had no doubt he was an outstanding player, and we were happy to get him."
Maradona replaced Shaibah with Richard Porta, an Uruguayan-Australia forward, who failed to impress and is now out of the team.
Wahda went 3-1 up in the 89th minute on another header by Baiano, his eighth goal in six games.
"Baiano is in good shape and healthy, and that was not the case in the beginning of the season because he was injured for almost half the year," Hickersberger said. "I didn't expect him to be such in excellent shape and scoring goals and goals in almost every match … he's one of the best strikers in the country."
Olivera scored a consolation goal for Wasl in the 90+2 minute.
Maradona was composed and calm in a post-match meeting with media, looking ahead to the future.
Asked about the recent criticism of the team by Majed Naser, the goalkeeper, of the Wasl side, Maradona said: "Yes, this is quite obvious that some players are not up to par and don't have the experience or the skill to perform in high intensity games like the President's Cup.
"We are looking for players like Majed Naser, and we want to have 11 players who can play at this level. I am not a magician, but I hope to make for a better squad."
Said Hickersberger: "We were lucky not to be down two goals in the first half, but in the second half my team took control … and even being 1-0 down, they showed their performance and they came back … and, for me, they deserved to win."
ABU DHABI // Al Ain were made to regret the absence of their top scorer, Asamoah Gyan, last night as they were knocked out of the President’s Cup by another African striker – one they let leave the club in 2009.
After a goalless 90 minutes, Andre Senghor, the Senegalese forward, rose above the Al Ain defence in extra time to score the only goal of a quarter-final that was thrilling but lacked goals at Al Wahda’s Al Nahyan Stadium.
Baniyas will now face Wahda in the semi-finals.
Gyan, who tops the scoring chart in the Pro League with 10 goals from nine games, joined his national team for the African Cup of Nations starting from January 21, jointly hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Gyan’s place in the line-up was filled by Mohammed Naser, and Ignacio Scocco, the Argentine midfielder, played alongside him, but both failed to find the target from a flurry of chances, particularly in the second half.
There was drama from the very first minute. The referee Fahad Al Kasar awarded a penalty but later rightly changed the decision after consulting the linesman as Abdulrahman’s shot hit the outstretched hand of Mohammed Fawzi when he took evasive action, but he was outside the area.
Mohammed Ali Ghuloom, the Baniyas goalkeeper, did well to punch away the powerful strike from the ensuing free kick from Scocco.
Al Ain went on the offensive from the onset of the second half. They pushed for the lead and could have scored through Abdulrahman, but his effort from 12 yards sailed over the crossbar.
Al Ain looked the most likely to win the game as they continued to pile forward.
Mohammed Malallah’s header from close range late in the game was well saved by Ghuloom, who also kept out a stinging long-range Mohammed Salem, the substitute, as Baniyas held on to force the game into extra time.
And that is when Gabriel Calderon’s side struck, with Senghor leaping to get his head onto a long ball which looped over a stranded Al Ain keeper.
It was a sweet moment for Senghor, who was deemed surplus to requirements at Al Ain. He has now scored six times in six games against his former club.
Al Ain, the Pro League leaders pressed forward, but no equaliser came leaving Baniyas, winners of the trophy in 1992, to celebrate.