x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Al Ahli lift President's Cup after classic battle with Al Shabab

At the end of all 97 minutes, Al Ahli limped off winners of the showpiece cup tournament for an eighth time.

Al Ahli lift the trophy at the Jazira Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar / The National
Al Ahli lift the trophy at the Jazira Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar / The National

ABU DHABI // Last night at the Mohammad bin Zayed Stadium was what might be considered a classic. The 37th President's Cup final, heated supporters, seven goals, one saved penalty, one monumental comeback, one sending-off. You will be hard-pressed to find a better final in recent memory.

At the end of all 97 minutes, Al Ahli limped off winners of the showpiece cup tournament for an eighth time. For their spirit and attacking vim, neither they nor Al Shabab deserved to lose, but for their defending, neither side deserved to win.

The winner came in the 85th minute, and fittingly for a match in which every one of the six preceding goals was the result of defensive error, it was an own goal.

The Brazilian Edgar Bruno slipped in an Ismail Al Hammadi cross-shot (an effort not to dissimilar to Al Hammadi's Gulf Cup winner earlier this year), thereby completing an unfortunate hat-trick and cancelling out his own two scores at the right end.

"We are very happy with this because it caps off two years of excellent work with an amazing group of players," the triumphant coach, Quique Flores Sanchez, said.

"Shabab are an excellent side and very difficult opponents. The game wasn't good for the heart of coaches, but for the fans it was a great game."

It was a cruel one too, particularly for Bruno, who as part of Shabab's delicious Brazilian front troika, had done the most to keep his side in the game.

His goals, the first a thumping header from a corner in the first half and a tap in soon into the second, had pulled Shabab level, after they had spent the first half-hour chasing Ahli's shadows.

Even when Luis Jimenez restored Ahli's lead just before the hour, it did not feel as if the night was over. Just before the goal, Salem Abdullah had saved a Grafite penalty.

But the goalkeeper was at fault for Jimenez's free kick, allowing it to float in over his head from the left. Ciel equalised with a penalty with less than 10 minutes left but Shabab's errors would eventually take their toll.

"We made schoolboy defensive mistakes," Marcos Paqueta, the Shabab coach said. "We had control, especially when we equalised at 3-3, but it wasn't to be. My players really fought, especially to come back, but unfortunately we just couldn't finish it."

When Adnan Al Balushi and Grafite had put Ahli ahead by two inside the first 15 minutes - both benefiting from defensive mistakes - the final looked as good as over. Shabab were a defensive mess, pushed around by Grafite's muscularity and pulled wide apart to leave masses of open space through the middle.

At that point, Ahli were attacking with the verve evident through much of their Pro League campaign, with Hussein and Jimenez in particularly inventive moods.

But the topsy-turvy of their night was summed up by Grafite, first for his penalty miss and then the dismissal in injury time, for a second yellow card.

It will not matter in the final analysis, as Ahli moved level with Sharjah for the most President Cup titles. The only question left was of Sanchez Flores's future, and no clear answer arrived.

"I don't know," he said of his future. "We are in the same situation as last year, the season is finished, the contract is finished, and same as last year, we end with a trophy and this time second position.

"We will repeat same process as last year, take time to think about things."

If it is the end, he signed off with a night of magnificent entertainment.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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