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Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 4 2013, Etisalat Cup football, 8pm, Rashid Stadium, Abu Dhabi, Al Ahli v Al Shabab- (centre in Blk) Al Ahli's #55 GK Majed Naser blocked the ball three times in one attack in the second half action and denide the Al Shabab to find the back of the net during action in the Etisalat Cup at Rashid Stadium,Dubai. Mike Young / The National?
Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan 4 2013, Etisalat Cup football, 8pm, Rashid Stadium, Abu Dhabi, Al Ahli v Al Shabab- (centre in Blk) Al Ahli's #55 GK Majed Naser blocked the ball three times in one attack in the second half action and denide the Al Shabab to find the back of the net during action in the Etisalat Cup at Rashid Stadium,Dubai. Mike Young / The National?

You have to hand it to reformed character Majed Naser

What a difference 12 months makes. Last year he faced calls to be suspended for an entire season, and now the goalkeeper stands on the brink of capping a fine season with a President's Cup winners medal for Al Ahli.

Perhaps he is still paying for past crimes. Or maybe rival Ali Kasheif's Gulf Cup heroics are still fresh in the memory. Either way, when the Pro League awards were being dished out on Sunday night, Majed Naser, arguably the country's best goalkeeper, was not among the winners.

It was hardly a shock for the bad boy of UAE football. Nor will Al Ahli's No 1, in his first season since moving from Al Wasl, be overly concerned.

Tonight, he stands on the brink of capping what has turned out to be a fine season with a President's Cup winners medal in Abu Dhabi.

It has been quite the turnaround for a man who seemed on his way out of football last season. A player hit with a 17-match ban for slapping an opposition coach in the Etisalat Cup semi-final last year. A player threatening to retire.

A player who, rather astonishingly for someone with a record of bad behaviour, is also a policeman.

Salvation came for Naser from the most unexpected sources the man on the receiving end of that slap, Ahli coach Quique Sanchez Flores.

The short move across Dubai last October has worked a treat for both player and club. After a strong finale to the season, the Dubai club finished second in the Pro League behind Al Ain, which should mean Asian Champions League (ACL) qualification.

Today, they have the chance to end the season with silverware.

Al Shabab may have gone further in the ACL than their opponents, but Ahli are strong favourites in today's showdown at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

Ahli outscored opponents almost two to one in the Pro League this season, and the performances of 24-goal top scorer Grafite, the Pro League's International Player of the Year, and playmaker Luis Jimenez, will be key tonight.

But equally important to the club's season has been Naser's form between the sticks.

In his first match for Al Ahli, Naser saved twice in a penalty shoot-out as his new club made it to the President's Cup quarter-final. More recently, when the ill-tempered semi-final against now-bitter rivals Al Ain threatened to get out of hand, Naser kept Omar Abdulrahman, Gyan and the rest at bay.

Those familiar with Naser will not be surprised by this season's heroics. After all he has represented the UAE no less than 61 times, including during the triumphant 2007 Gulf Cup campaign.

His qualities, however, have in the past been overshadowed by his self-sabotaging antics.

It must not be forgotten that Naser's list of misdemeanours is as long as it is shameful.

Before the slap, there were bans for abusing and assaulting officials. After it, a butt and sending off in the Gulf Clubs Championship final last June cost Al Wasl the title.

Even his own club called on the Football Association to ban him for the duration of the 2012/13 campaign.

And yet this season, having had his ban reduced to six months, he has shown a new-found maturity.

"I don't expect the Wasl fans to be very welcoming when I return to the club, because I understand they are upset," Naser said on his return to Wasl for a game with Ahli in February. "My focus will be on how I can help Ahli get three points from the game, and that is the most important thing for me."

It is not the opposition fans that Al Ahli's coach and supporters have needed to worry about. Naser's reputation often makes him a target of opponents looking to rile him.

"For me, Majed is the best in the UAE and one of the best in the GCC," Bruno Metsu, his former coach at Al Wasl and international level, said at the time of Naser's transfer to Al Ahli.

"He has great qualities, but sometimes he fights too much. You need to know goalkeepers, when they concede a lot of goals, they get agitated. You need to help Majed, to understand him; not to fight him."

His current coach has shown complete faith in him, as have his teammates. Grafite put Naser in the same category as Abdulrahman as "Emirati players with high technical skills and quality".

Perhaps realising that those many "second chances" will eventually run out, Naser has been a revelation this year.

Another match-winning performance tonight in Abu Dhabi will go a long way to convincing his critics that he is a changed man. And maybe, just maybe, improve his chances of a recall to the UAE team.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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