x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Gloves are off for the No 1 nod at Al Ahli

Both Naser and Mesmari are doing well and coach Sanchez Flores has tough choice to make.

In Majed Naser, above, Al Ahli are 'in safe hands' says his coach Quique Sanchez Flores.
In Majed Naser, above, Al Ahli are 'in safe hands' says his coach Quique Sanchez Flores.

DUBAI // Quique Sanchez Flores, the Al Ahli coach, concedes he faces a difficult decision regarding which of his goalkeepers will be entrusted with the No 1 jersey when the Pro League resumes later this month.

The Spaniard has relied on Ali Mesmari for much of the season, the Emirati featuring in 13 matches in total, including the past 11 league fixtures to help Ahli move third in the table.

However, the return of Majed Naser from a six-month suspension - incurred while playing for Al Wasl - has given Sanchez Flores plenty to consider.

Naser has been outstanding in his two appearances since the ban ended, saving two penalties in last month's President's Cup shootout victory against Al Dhafra and then proving the man of the match during Friday night's 0-0 Etisalat Cup encounter with Al Shabab.

"We have to try to read this situation," said Sanchez Flores. "For us, the performance of Majed was very important. We understand perfectly this is an important player, but we also realise he is coming from a period of six months without playing.

"So it's very important he gains confidence as quickly as possible, but for Ahli, [his form is] excellent news. His tactical play is improving and physically he's as good as he was.

"But I'm very happy with the performance of Ali, who was very important in putting the team in the top three of the league."

Naser will no doubt be encouraged by his return to first-team football.

The 28-year-old custodian, long viewed as the UAE's best, has rightfully attracted negative headlines since in March slapping Sanchez Flores, then an opposition manager, at the end of an Etisalat Cup tie.

His actions led to a 17-match suspension, a punishment soon expanded to six months following his dismissal for butting an opponent in June's GCC Champions League final.

A free transfer to Ahli in September may have surprised, yet Naser has quickly convinced Sanchez Flores the skillset that provided 61 caps with the national team has been preserved.

"Majed does not have a different plan to the rest of the other players, although it's very important that he's comfortable in the team and the group," said Sanchez Flores.

"I try to make sure too that he is supportive of the other goalkeepers because he has that experience.

"In every team it's vital that, when the defensive line looks behind them, they recognise they've a good goalkeeper, that they are in safe hands.

"You need to know when you don't play well and don't have control of the ball that you've a goalkeeper who can solve the situation.

"Naser is that player."

Sanchez Flores would not be drawn on potential signings this month.

Ahli were one of the least active Pro League clubs during the summer transfer window, choosing instead to retain their four foreign players: Grafite, Luis Jimenez, Achille Emana and Yousuf Mohammed.

"I don't have any news," said the coach.

"If I do I'm sure in the next press conference I'll be able to speak about it.

"I've said since last year that this is a group that is alive.

"The club's always thinking about how we improve it.

"So we are waiting to see what happens with the club, whether we will have news or not."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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