DUBAI // It was supposed to be Mohamed Aboutrika's welcoming party. At least, that is what the Baniyas, and the few Egyptians supporters at Al Wasl's Zabeel Stadium, were probably wishing for. But trust Al Ain to be the party poopers.
The Egyptian great tried his best to make his debut in UAE football a memorable one with a wonderful goal in the 68th minute to level the scores, but Al Ain's total football eventually won the contest and booked them a place in the semi-finals of the President's Cup following a 2-1 win.
"We won a tough game … a very, very tough game," said Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach.
"We showed we can win the hard way and I can only congratulate my players for the way they fought on the field. They showed great character and made everyone proud."
Winner of two African Cup of Nations with Egypt, four African Champions League with Al Ahly and a horde of other titles and individual honours, Aboutrika was making his first appearance for a club outside Egypt. The 34-year-old playmaker has had plenty of offers to move abroad in the past, but he had preferred to stay home, playing for just two clubs since his career began in 1997 - at Tersana, until 2004, before moving to Ahly.
Money had never been important to Aboutrika. There is a tale of him from his days in Tersana, when he refused to sign a contract because the club was offering him a substantially higher salary than the rest of his teammates. He insisted on being paid the same amount.
Unfortunately, Aboutrika had to leave Egypt for the money during the last transfer window - not for himself but his club, who are in dire financial straits due to the domestic Egyptian league yet to resume following the deaths of 72 Ahly fans during riots at Port Said 12 months ago. Even in Abu Dhabi, though, he has not forgotten those supporters, choosing the No 72 jersey in memory of those who perished in that tragedy.
A few Egyptians had turned up at the Zabeel Stadium to support him, with their red Ahly flags, and as soon as he entered the pitch, they unfurled a giant banner to welcome him.
Aboutrika went across the pitch to acknowledge them, but once the referee blew his whistle, he was reduced to a virtual spectator in the opening half as Al Ain produced the sort of football that has earned them global recognition over the past 18 months.
The precision passing and smart touches almost resulted in Al Ain opening the lead on 14 minutes as Alex Brosque tip-toed his way around the defence, but Obaid Al Tawila managed to punch his shot away for a corner.
A minute later, however, the Baniyas goalkeeper had no chance as the Australia midfielder finished off Jires Kembo Ekoko's cross with a diving header.
Aboutrika showed glimpses of his class with a clever chip over the Al AIn defence in the 33rd minute, but Andre Senghor failed to find a way past the Al Ain goalkeeper. Aboutrika then took it upon himself to net Baniyas' equaliser and he did it with some style in the 68th minute, blasting Habboush Saleh's pass into the top right-hand corner. A deafening roar erupted in the stands.
"We lost our focus for a couple of minutes and they got the equaliser," Olaroiu said. "What I was afraid of was that we might suffer if we continued the same way. But we took control, started passing the ball. The second goal was a combination of four-five passes."
Al Ain's second goal, in the 77th minute, involved Omar Abdulrahman and Kembo Ekoko in the build-up before Ali Al Wehaibi latched on to the latter's cross and placed it into the far corner.
Olaroiu's men survived the tense closing minutes and as soon as the referee blew his final whistle, Abdulrahman walked up to Aboutrika and exchanged jerseys with him, adding to a collection that already includes Ryan Giggs and Luis Suarez.
"We played at a good level today," said Jozef Chovanec, the Baniyas coach. "Unfortunately, we could not grab a win. It's a sad result because nobody can deny we gave a wonderful performance."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE