The all-UAE AFC Champions League round of 16 clash between Sharjah and Al-Wahda went all the way to a penalty shootout before Al-Wahda secured the quarter-final ticket late on Tuesday night.
A goalless opening period gave way to an action-packed second half. Syrian striker Omar Kharbin opened the scoring for the Abu Dhabi team, only for former Everton midfielder Bernard to peg them back two minutes later, bringing Sharjah back into the game.
Here are five things we learned from the match that put Al-Wahda through to the last eight of the continental competition for the first time in 14 years.
1. Ten Cate wins the battle of the pragmatists
When the line-ups were announced an hour before kick-off at Sharjah Stadium it was clear that this was going to be a cagey affair. Al-Wahda’s Dutch manager Henk ten Cate set up his side with a defensive three central midfielders, while his opposite number, Abdulaziz Al-Anbari, opted for his usual conservative interpretation of 4-2-3-1.
Both coaches had found success in the past playing a pragmatic style of play, with the Dutchman winning the UAE Pro League title in 2016-17 and reaching the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup semi-final while in charge of Al-Jazira, and Al-Anbari guiding his boyhood club Sharjah to the league title in 2018-19 and adding the 2019 UAE Super Cup.
On the night it was Ten Cate who emerged superior, with his side looking well-prepared for the eventuality of penalties. Despite momentum going Sharjah’s way after they had equalized, Al-Wahda were able to sit deep and break all opposition attacks.
It was a memorable game for the veteran Dutchman, while Al-Anbari will be left to reflect on what went wrong after Sharjah’s best run in the competition since they reached the quarter-final in his playing days in 2004.
2. Al-Shamsi is the future of UAE goalkeeping
Both sides featured UAE international goalkeepers in their ranks. While neither keeper is currently first choice for national team coach Bert van Marwijk – that spot is reserved for Al-Jazira captain Ali Khaseif – they both staked a claim to be considered with their displays on Tuesday.
Sharjah’s Adel Al-Hosani denied Kharbin from point-blank late in the second half and saved the first penalty in the shootout from Spanish midfielder Jose Angel Jurado to give Sharjah the advantage.
Al-Wahda’s Mohammed Al-Shamsi showed impressive reflexes to tip over Ben Malango’s header in the second half. The 24-year-old looked confident as the pressure mounted. With Congolese striker Malango stepping up to take the fifth spot kick that would have won it for Sharjah, Al-Shamsi produced a heroic save and backed it up minutes later by saving from substitute Khalil Khamis to send his team into the quarter-finals.
3. Sharjah unlucky with injuries
In a knockout game of 120 minutes, the difference is often made by the depth of a squad as fresh legs come on late. Despite a busy summer transfer window for Sharjah, injuries left coach Al-Anbari with limited options.
Sharjah were without the services of midfield enforcer Majed Suroor, who underwent surgery in the summer and continues his recovery, while winger Saif Rashid was only fit enough to make the bench.
To make matters worse for the home team, full-back Ali Al-Dhanhani was stretchered off and sent to hospital with a broken nose in the second half, and club captain Shahin Abdulrahman suffered a muscular injury in extra time.
“My plan was to introduce a fresh striker off the bench to replace Ben Malango but we were forced to take off centre-back Shahin Abdulrahman due to his injury,” said Al-Anbari after the match. He could not follow through with his plan, and a jaded Malango was left on the pitch, going on to miss the decisive fifth penalty.
4. Kharbin back to his clinical best
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, pressure was mounting on Syrian striker Omar Kharbin. The 2017 Asian Player of The Year has been on a goal drought, by his own high standards, failing to find the back of the net in his last four games for club and country.
Against Sharjah, the odds seemed stacked against him, with his manager ditching the 4-2-3-1 system that provided additional attacking support in terms of an attacking midfielder; with skipper Ismael Matar suspended, the Syrian was played out on the left in a 4-3-3 formation.
Kharbin responded to doubters with a man of the match performance, scoring his side’s only goal with a blend of shrewd positioning and emphatic finishing to convert Joao Pedro’s through pass. He also worked tirelessly throughout the 120 minutes, leading from the front to earn a standing ovation from the travelling fans.
5. Al-Wahda will not be easy to beat
Al-Wahda rounded off the four-team contingent of West Asian sides in the quarter-finals, joining Saudi Arabian pair Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr and Iran’s Persepolis in the next stage.
With the draw set to take place on Friday morning, Al-Wahda will be the least experienced of the quartet. Al-Hilal won the title in 2019, Al-Nassr are in the quarter-finals for the third year in a row and Persepolis made the final twice in the past four years. Al-Wahda’s last appearance in this stage was 2007.
But Tuesday’s performance showed that Al-Wahda will not be easy to beat, with coach Ten Cate declaring his side ready for battle.
“We are not afraid of any team, we showed respect to Sharjah but we were not afraid of them,” said the 66-year-old.
“Maybe some teams play better, maybe some teams have better players, but we have a way of playing that makes it difficult for other teams to play us. We are well organised, and we don’t give many chances. This is our way.”