x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

GCC Final: Maradona looks for silver lining to difficult season

Al Wasl's Argentine manager wants to finish his first term in the UAE with a trophy to bring 'happiness we haven't had this season'.

Al Wasl coach Diego Maradona on the touchline during action with Al Nasr.
Al Wasl coach Diego Maradona on the touchline during action with Al Nasr.

DUBAI // As a player, Diego Maradona had the world at his feet, winning numerous trophies for his teams and earning accolades as an individual.

According to Fifa, he is the joint Player of the Century (with Pele) and the magical goal he scored against England at the 1986 World Cup was picked as the Goal of the Century by football's governing body.

As a manager though, the Argentine legend has yet to win any silverware, but that wait could end this week when Al Wasl meet Al Muharraq of Bahrain in the two-legged final of the GCC Clubs' Championship.

The first leg is tonight, when Wasl meet the hosts at the Khalifa Sports City in Manama and Maradona has called on his players to seal the fate of the championship in the first game and not wait for the return match on Sunday.

"It's a very important match and we are taking it very seriously because if we do win this championship, it will bring a lot of happiness to the club, happiness that we haven't had this season," said Maradona, whose team finished eighth in the Pro League, reached the last-four of the Etisalat Cup and bowed out of the President's Cup at the quarter-final stage.

Wasl have done a lot better in the Gulf competition though, winning all but one of their seven matches. They won all four of their group matches against Al Riffa of Bahrain and Oman's Al Nahda. In the quarter-final, Maradona's men prevailed over fellow Pro League side Al Wahda in the penalty shoot-out, while they clinched a spot in the final with a 4-2 aggregate win over Al Khor of Qatar.

Muharraq reached the final with 3-2 aggregate win over Kuwait's Al Arabi in the semi-finals and Maradona knows they will be a stiff challenge for his team.

"Al Muharraq are a very strong team," the Argentine said. "They won their last match 2-0 at home and they have some really exceptional players. At the same time, we have the ability to overcome them and win the match.

"We have studied them very well, every individual player they have, and hopefully we can beat them on their own turf."

Maradona will have a full squad for the game with Darwish Ahmed returning from injury. Mohammed Reza Khalatbari, who scored the 94th-minute winner for Iran in their 2014 World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan on Sunday night in Tashkent, will join the team in Bahrain, but the Argentine was not ready to reveal if he would start the game.

The Wasl manager, however, promised his team was as keen as he was to regain the title they won in 2009 and were not suffering from any end-of-season fatigue. That optimism was shared by the winger Rashed Issa, who said: "Our goal is to win the title. We know it will not be an easy game in Bahrain, but we have great confidence in the players and the coaching staff."

Maradona received a warm welcome in Bahrain when he took his team to the kingdom for the group game against Riffa in April, but Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulrahman Al Khalifa, the deputy chairman of Muharraq, promised his team will make sure the Argentine does not leave a happy man as he did last time.

"With both teams seeking to win the title, it is going to be an exciting game," Sheikh Rashid was quoted as saying in the Bahraini media. "There is going to be a massive turnout for the match and we will all get behind our team to make sure we beat Al Wasl."

Wasl will be flying their fans by private jet for the game and Maradona, responding to Sheikh Rashid's comments, said: "As a vice president, he wants his team to win, just like I want my team to win.

"But words will not stop me, will not stop my passion to win. I don't think I will be welcomed as I was the last time. It was a really great welcome, but knowing the intensity of this final, I don't think it will be the same environment.

"I completely understand his point of view, but I would like him to remember that the return match is going to be here on our home turf."

8pm, Al Jazeera Sports Global and Dubai Sports



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