Ali proves he's king of the Gulf
It's been a great few months for Ali Al Habsi. The Bolton Wanderers goalkeeper committed himself to the Premier League side for a further five years by penning a contract extension in December, then stood tall between the posts last week as his Oman team secured their first ever Gulf Cup triumph, without conceding a goal. Al Habsi has now not conceded in 660 minutes of competitive football.
A dramatic penalty shoot-out victory against Saudi Arabia – the first time the small Gulf state have defeated their more illustrious opponent – was sealed when Taiseer Al Jassim sent the visitors' sixth penalty wide to leave home captain Mohammed Rabea to collect his nerves and spark the celebrations.
Al Habsi may not have been called into action during the tense finale, but he shone throughout the competition to earn the 'Best Goalkeeper' award for a record fourth successive tournament.
Gary Megson, Al Habsi's manager at Bolton, believes the shy stopper deserves the plaudits he's received since his remarkable Gulf Cup campaign and feels he has the ingredients to become one of the best in the business.
"Ali's got great size first and foremost," says Megson, enjoying a mid-season training camp with Bolton in Dubai this week. "He's good at taking crosses, his kicking is definitely improving and he's got great reflexes in terms of making saves. So he's got everything you need to be a top, top goalkeeper."
Patience seems to be another attribute the 27-year-old has in his locker. Having spent his formative years at local club Al Midhaibi, Al Habsi moved to the celebrated Al Nasr before impressing enough to attract interest from Norwegian outfit Lyn Oslo.
The Norwegian Goalkeeper of the Year award was added to the second of his Arabian gongs in 2004, following some dependable performances that catapulted Lyn to a third-place finish in the Tippeligaen.
His impermeability persuaded Sam Allardyce, then manager of Bolton, to sign the keeper as understudy to Jussi Jaaskelainen, the Finnish No1, in January 2007, yet Al Habsi had to wait another nine months to make his full debut for the Lancashire club.
His big break came two months later, however, when the 6ft-4in custodian was promoted to the side to face Bayern Munich for a Uefa Cup tie at the Allianz Arena. Jaaskelainen fell foul to a recurring back injury and Megson, who had only taken the reigns from the unsuccessful Sammy Lee, was forced to play his rookie goalie.
"I didn't know too much about him when I joined the club to be honest," admits the Bolton boss. "But his first game for me was against Bayern and he acquitted himself brilliantly, made a lot of top-class saves and couldn't have done much better.
"He could step up to the challenge because he's got confidence in his own ability and we share that confidence. Sometimes you're not sure how people are going to react, but once he played the Uefa Cup game we trusted that everything would be alright with Ali in goal."
A dazzling display in front of 60,000 manic Munich fans – the highlight a wonderful one-handed tip over from a stinging Franck Ribery shot – provided the platform for Al Habsi to grow into his role at Bolton and, when the club came calling again last March, he took to the pressure of the Premier League effortlessly.
He became the first Gulf player to play in the world's most lucrative league when he lined up against Wigan at the JJB Stadium. Entrusted by Bolton to help preserve their top-flight status, he excelled in the relegation run-in. Megson's side stayed unbeaten for four games, a period that included three crucial wins, with Al Habsi playing protagonist.
"Jussi, fortunately for Ali I suppose, missed the last 10 games of the season because of his bad back," recalls Megson. "We were in a relegation battle and it wasn't the thing we wanted to happen as Jussi is one of the top three goalkeepers in Europe in my opinion.
"Yet Ali came in, adapted brilliantly, played some fantastic games and made some wonderful saves. The game we played against Middlesbrough at the Riverside was vital and, while we beat them 1-0, the game would have been out of our reach if it wasn't for Ali's performance in the first 15 minutes.
"But that's wonderful for Ali because he's a great lad. He's acclimatised without a problem and the difference in culture is not an issue. He's quiet, but is a really good person, works hard and has a laugh and a joke.
"His English is terrific and he's a real credit to his family and his country," adds Megson. "He's signed a long contract [to 2013] and we're delighted with that and I'm sure he is as well. Ali likes the area and the people so he's settled at Bolton. He's got a big future at the club."
If the future holds any of the success that the past few months have given him, Ali Al Habsi will have plenty more reasons to smile in the years ahead.
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