Dubai: This is only the second time that Makhete Diop is playing in the AFC Champions League. His first was with Al Karama where the club from Bahrain failed to negotiate past the group stages. Now, given his second opportunity with Al Ahli, the strongly-built Senegalese striker knows he has the qualities and the added experience to push his club towards an elusive AFC Champions League crown.
In the past, the Red Knights had never been huge fans of the continental contest involving the best clubs in Asia.
Al Ahli first participated in the play-offs for the AFC Champions League in 2002-03.
And they managed to make the main rounds of the competitions starting in 2005, followed by successive appearances in 2009 and 2010 [when they also represented the UAE at the prestigious Fifa World Clubs Cup competition in Abu Dhabi], and then on three successive editions starting in 2014, 2015 and the current one.
Last week’s qualification to the knockout rounds for a sixth time was not exactly all that easy. Al Ahli either needed a draw – that posed the possibility of meeting fellow Emiratis Al Ain in the ensuing round – or a win, that would help them top Group A and play namesakes from Saudi Arabia. The Red Knights came out roaring with a 4-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan’s PFC Lokomotiv and booked their place against Al Ahli from Saudi Arabia, in the two-legged Round of 16 on May 22 and 29.
But Diop had to watch from the stands while serving out his one-match suspension for yellow cards received during previous matches. But, Diop didn’t have to stress too much as defender Salmin Khamis opened the scoring on 27 minutes with a header off an Everton Ribeiro free kick, while the home side extended their lead as the hour approached after Esmail Al Hammadi’s grounder struck the post and went in off Lokomotiv goalkeeper Mamur Ikramov to make it 2-0.
With the game opening up, the Uzbeks could not stop Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan and Ribeiro getting their names on the scoresheet with clever finishes in the 72nd and 77th minutes as the home team avenged their away 2-0 loss with a 4-0 result to end at the top of Group A with eleven points. Iran’s Esteghlal was the second team that qualified to the Round of 16 with an away 2-1 win against Al Taawoun of Saudi Arabia.
“I am relieved that we could make this important step into the knockouts. Sitting out, and that too without being injured is not something that is pleasing to any professional. I would have loved to be there on the field helping my team, but rules have to be followed. This was something that was totally out of my control,” Diop told Gulf News.
“Going into the match, we had two chances, either a draw or a win. We never gave up, and we came through with such a strong result. Now it is time to look ahead and prepare for the next step that we need to take while playing against Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia,” the 28-year-old added.
Diop is perhaps one of the more experienced players in the squad, thanks to his exploits in the past with other clubs in the region including Al Karama in Syria (2010-11), Al Nejmeh in the Lebanese Premier League and five seasons at Al Dhafrah in Abu Dhabi before making the swap to Al Ghusais with the Red Knights before the closure of the winter transfer window in January this year.
“Having expectations at this stage is not exactly practical. I know from experience that Al Ahli [Saudi Arabia] is a good team. I have seen them play before, and I know pretty much what we have to do in Jeddah,” Diop narrated.
“But we have this belief that we too are good. Our most immediate task is that we should try and work hard and prepare for this crucial match as it would mean the next logical step for us. We will be playing away first, so our focus will have to be to score there and return with the away goals advantage. If not, the even better thing would be to return with a win. We will see happens at the end of the month,” he added.
The two Al Ahlis are scheduled to play their Round of 16 match in Jeddah on May 22, while the home game will be in Dubai on May 29.
“The league is over now and our most important games will be these next two within a week. So the main thing now for us will be to stick together as a unit and follow the directions of our coach Cosmin [Olaroiu]. We need to continue staying as one family and this unity will count and reflect on the field. We are already a close-knit unit and that is the reason why we have been so successful. I am simply happy to be here at this point,” Diop noted.
Al Ahli’s best chance at the title was in 2015 when they reached the final, but lost by a solitary goal to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande. That gives Diop some more motivation at attaining an unfulfilled ambition for the Red Knights. “Reaching another final and winning it this time will always be a huge part of our ambitions. But we need to first tackle one match at a time,” Diop said.
“To play a final with Al Ahli will be a dream for me. I will do everything I can to ensure we win the title this time, if we do make it to the final. But for the time-being we take one match at a time,” Diop promised.