Jeddah: Al Ahli UAE’s decision to adopt a counterattacking approach to the first-leg of their 2017 AFC Champions League Round of 16 meeting with Al Ahli Saudi on Monday evening paid off as Cosmin Olaroiu’s team take a narrow away goal advantage back to Dubai for next week’s return.
The absence of talismanic forward Omar Al Soma through injury went some way towards blunting the Al Ahli Saudi attack, and Gross will be hoping the Syrian striker returns for the second-leg next week.
Olaroiu’s decision to start with Makhete Diop leading his attack ahead of Ahmed Khalil and Asamoah Gyan signalled the Romanian coach’s desire to use the Senegalese forward’s physical presence to not only cause problems at set plays, but to also hold the ball up and allow Ismail Al Hammadi’s pace and Everton Ribiero’s precision passing to hurt the home side.
Searing speed is Al Hammadi’s greatest weapon and, with the UAE international spending more time in central positions than usual, his preparedness to run at the Saudi defence when on the ball ensured the home team were unable to commit too many men forward even when in possession.
Al Ahli UAE’s fluid, attacking line looked to hit hard and often and, despite having considerably less of the ball than the home team, Olaroiu’s team managed almost as many attempts on goal, with 12 to Al Ahli Saudi’s 13.
The home side dominated possession by a considerable margin – 60.1 percent to 39.9 percent over the course of the 90 minutes – and it was in the wide areas that Gross’ team caused the visitors the greatest difficulties.
While the equaliser came thanks to one of left back Mohammed Shafy’s penetrating runs before sliding the ball in for Asiri to score, it was on the right side that Al Ahli Saudi had the most consistent results.
Ioannis Fetfatzidis and full back Saeed Al Muwallad combined regularly to threaten the Al Ahli UAE defence, with the pair creating numerous chances.
While the combination of Shafy and left-sided winger Salman Muwashar caught the eye, it was Fetfatzidis and Al Muwallad who were teeing the attack up with the opportunities to score.
Combined, the pair created six chances – three apiece – with Shafy and Muwashar contributing another two opportunities for Al Ahli Saudi to score, including Asiri’s goal in the 38th minute.
That Al Ahli Saudi could score just once from such a dominant position and having had 13 attempts at goal – although only two were on target - during the game can only heighten the urgency in Gross’ mind to bring Al Soma back in time for the second-leg in Dubai next week.