Former Al Ain teammates consider Al Qahtani a brother, but ‘Inside the pitch, we don’t know Yasser’
The Zidane pirouette. The Ronaldino dummy. The Ronaldo step-over.
No move was too sacred for Saudi playmaker Yasser Al Qahtani to attempt. More often than not, successfully.
Just ask Al Ain fans.
Tonight, the striker who fleetingly enthralled fans at the Garden City will be trying to break those same supporters’ hearts as Al Hilal host Al Ain in the first leg of the 2014 AFC Champions League.
It promises to be an emotional affair for all concerned.
None more so than for Al Qahtani, 31, one of the enduring mavericks of Gulf football.
He may only have played one season at Al Ain, in 2011/12, but what a campaign it proved to be for player and club.
His partnership with Ghanaian World Cup star Asamoah Gyan in attack, with emerging Omar Abdulrahman pulling the strings in midfield, propelled Al Ain to their first league title since 2004.
He scored seven goals in 15 league appearances, and 12 goals in a total of 26 games across all competitions.
Al Ain fans will forever cherish the double that clinched the title against then-reigning champions Al Jazira, a team he had terrorised both home and away in the previous year’s Asian Champions League group stage with his parent club.
Despite the successful spell in the UAE, and coach Cosmin Olaroiu’s keenness on signing him full time, Al Qahtani returned to Al Hilal, the club he idolised as a child and joined from Al Qadisiya in 2005.
There will be little room for sentimentality as he comes up against his former coach at Al Hilal, Zlatko Dalic.
Al Qahtani has already faced Al Ain in the 2013 AFC Champions League group stage.
It was clear then how highly he was still regarded by his former teammates – and how feared he remained.
“Outside the 90 minutes, he is a brother, a friend,” Abdulrahman said ahead of that Asian Champions League group opener at Al Ain. “But inside the pitch, we don’t know Yasser.”
Goals by Abdulrahman, Alex Brosque and Gyan ensured that there would be no happy homecoming for Al Qahtani as Al Ain ran out 3-1 winners.
However, the Saudi striker would have the last laugh as Al Hilal won the return fixture at Riyadh and finished second in the group, while the Emirati champions were knocked out.
Tonight, at King Fahd International Stadium, the stakes are even higher, with a chance to take a giant step to toward the final of the continent’s premier club competition and, beyond that, a place at the 2014 Club World Cup in December.
The AFC’s decision to keep teams in the western and eastern zones separated until the final has no doubt facilitated progress for both Al Ain and Al Hilal.
The winner of the all-GCC tie will have the formidable task of overcoming either last year’s runner-up, FC Seoul, or Western Sydney Wanderers, in a two-legged final on October 25 and November 1.
It could be one of Al Qahtani’s last chances to win the coveted trophy.
So far, he has managed only two goals in his club’s march to the last four.
In contrast, his former partner in crime, Gyan, has plundered 12 for Al Ain.
Dalic will not be lulled into any sense of security, though – he knows from his time at the club that Al Hilal’s captain remains a big-game player, for club and country.
He won the 2003 Gulf Cup while still at Al Qadisiya.
In 2006 he played and scored in the World Cup in Germany, but it was the following year that his international career exploded.
Having become the youngest captain of the Saudi national team, he led his country to the final of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, where he scored in all three group matches as well as the quarter-final and semi-final wins over Uzbekistan and Japan.
He finished the tournament as joint-top scorer with five goals, but his luck ran out in the final as Saudi Arabia went down 1-0 to an inspired Iraq.
In all, he has scored a remarkable 59 goals for his country.
He’s been just as successful at the club level, with three Saudi league titles and seven Crown Prince Cups, the last of which, in 2013, was achieved under Dalic.
Then there was that memorable spell with Al Ain. For the goals, the title and the outrageous pieces of skill.
The Asian Champions League has remained elusive.
How fondly Al Ain fans will continue to remember him, should he score tonight, or next week at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, remains to be seen.
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