Italian Serie A giants AC Milan barely managed to keep their reputation intact with a hard-fought 2-1 victory in a friendly football match against Al Ahli in Dubai on Sunday to lift the Emirates Challenge Cup.
Goals from Dutch international Clarence Seedorf and Giacomo Beretta in each half delighted the Rossoneri faithful who had packed the Rashid Stadium but Hassan Ali upstaged the stars with a brilliant late effort.
However, in a bizarre end to Milan’s winter tour of Dubai which was rocked by the imminent exit of Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho, Robinho suffered a freak injury after crashing onto a camera position near the touchline while Swedish international Zlatan Ibrahamovic received a yellow card and was involved in an ugly confrontation with Al Ahli manager David O’Leary at the end.
“It was a historic match. The performance of Al Ahli was good. The players and crowd enjoyed the football. We have to thanks Emirates and Milan for this,” said Ahmed Khalifa Hammad, CEO of Al Ahli Club.
Massimiliano Allegri’s men were dominant as expected with the hosts led by former Italian international Fabio Cannavaro having to defend for the most part in the first half. Former Al Ahli player from Iran Ali Karimi played a holding role in midfield.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game against AC Milan, but we were ready and it provided all of our fans with an exciting and quality match at our home field. I was pleased with the way we played and for the youngsters on the team this match was an incredible chance to play with the top players in the world. Now we are going to concentrate on the UAE League and taking that title,” said Italian-born Cannavaro.
“The goal of today’s match was for the players to go out and enjoy the moment, which tonight they did. For them this was a true footballers dream, as they played against some of the world’s top football stars, and it was a fabulous opportunity. The team played well and gave it their best shot, and in the end we are proud of the game we played,” said O’Leary.
“With the second half of any season being the most important part, this match was a test for us as we worked hard here in Dubai to improve our fitness levels and get stronger with drills that worked the team to the core. We are now prepared to go back to Italy in fine form and feel ready for all of our upcoming matches, including all games to be played for the UEFA Champions League, which we plan on winning,” said Allegri.
“With the position we are in at the top of our league, this time in Dubai has allowed us to become much more focused and work together as a team,” he added.
Milan’s new signing from Sampdoria Antonio Cassano struck an immediate accord with Seedorf and weaved his through upfront with midfielder Gennaro Gattusso providing good ball.
They came close on 25 minutes when Massimo Oddo’s long-range volley off a Seedorf corner flew wide while the Ahli custodian Saif Yousif parried away Luca Antonini’s close-range effort shortly after.
Alert defending by Cannavaro prevented Pato from swooping onto a fine cross into the box by Cassano who was combining effectively with the Brazilian.
The San Siro outfit continued to press and good interplay between Seedorf and Oddo down the right flank set up Cassano for a header that went over the bar.
Milan went deservedly in front after 38 minutes albeit through a dreadful cross from a free kick by Ismaeel Ahmad. Pato made the initial break and split open the defence giving Seedorf space to bang inside the near post despite the attention of Yousif.
“We were impressed with the quality of the Al Ahli pitch and the facilities at the club are first rate. The training on the beach was especially enjoyable, as it was a real change from our normal training and tested our strength. The trip up the Burj Khalifa was an experience – to be at the top of the world’s tallest building that was truly a great opportunity for all of us,” said Seedorf.
The Ahli stopper made some superb saves off Pato and Seedorf at the end of the first half as O’Leary’s men got their first real opportunity as Pinga slipped Faisal Khalil through before goalkeeper Flavio Roma virtually plucked the ball away to safety.
Both sides made wholesale changes in the second half with Allegri throwing in Ambrosini, Ibrahimovic and Robinho among others while Hassan Ali took on the arm band in the absence of Cannavaro and were bolstered by several guest players including Al Wahda’s Brazilian striker Fernando Baiano.
“Today was a mix of players and formations after an intense week of training. Al Ahli performed well. So in general it was good training and a good game,” said Allegri of their winter training tour.
Al Ahli striker Pinga and Milan substitute Beretta tested their opposing custodians at either end in the early exchanges following the restart, but despite the intensity of the game picking up the goals appeared to have dried up.
The hosts to their credit saw more of the ball with Salem Khamis and Baiano trying to string some moves together and frustrated the attempts of Ibrahimovic and Robinho to break through the last line of defence.
However, Beretta latched on to a fine cross from former Manchester City star Robinho with a powerful header to double Milan’s scoreline 2-0 in the 72nd minute.
Beretta appeared to be impeded by a defender when he attempted to muscle his way through inside the box shortly after but Ibrahimovic’s heated protest to referee Fahad Al Kassar Banihammad only resulted in a yellow card.
Ahli kept ringing in the changes and substitute Fabio Firamani forced a save from Christian Abbiati in the 78th minute with a long-range effort.
However with 10 minute left on the clock, Robinho collided with an off-pitch camera and hobbled down the tunnel nursing a heavily-strapped right knee.
Allegri was hopeful that Robinho would be able to recover before Thursday’s Serie A match against Cagliari.
“It’s quite a hard knock. We will see his condition in the next four days. Hopefully he won’t miss the game,” he said.
Allegri had no issue with the on-field camera which caused the accident. “It’s a problem that all fields have generally. Unfortunately the player didn’t realise that he was getting close to the camera,” he said.
Asked about the status of Ronaldinho, he said the out-of-favour midfielder was trying to reach an agreement with a club in Brazil but remains a Milan player as of date.
Hassan Ali halved the deficit with a spectacular volley that went in off the underside of the crossbar on 85 minutes.
“It’s nice to have Hassan back. When he is back we are a better team,” said O’Leary.
An ugly exchange erupted just before full-time as Ibrahimovic and O’Leary exchanged words regarding tackle on goalscorer Hassan Ali to provide a sour ending to keenly contested match.
Both coaches played down the incident.
“It was just a nervous moment between the player and coach. It died out immediately after that,” said Allegri.
“I wouldn’t want to talk about him (Ibrahimovic). It’s been a pleasure to have AC Milan here. It’s a club I’ve admired for a long long time. I’ve been lucky at Arsenal to play against them and then to be manager against them. It was a lovely evening. I hope Milan got what they wanted out of it and Robinho is alright. I hope they go on to win the league as well,” said O’Leary.
“I thought it was as good as anybody,” said the former Leeds United and Villa manager of Hassan Ali’s strike.
“I was delighted for the players here, just to have the experience to play against great players…players they see on TV for so long. They put up a good showing. What they got to learn is don’t do silly mistakes,” he said.
O’Leary expressed his gratitude to several guest players from other clubs who represented Al Ahli.
“It wasn’t my team tonight. The president wanted UAE to share playing against a great side tonight and asked send each club to send a player if they wanted,” he said.
Asked whether he was looking to inject new players during the January transfer window, he said most of the signings are expected to happen during summer.
“This squad will change immensely. We will not take anybody for the sake of taking it. We are looking for every position,” he said.
However, he reiterated they are on a three-year mission to raise the level of the club and his first season is spent assessing the players.
“Our aim is to take a club that was seven or eight and clean up the mess off the field as well as on the field and hand it back in a better shape. That is my promise after three years,” he said.
“Now we need to concentrate on winning as many matches as possible as we look to win the title. I know with the players I have here – they are good enough to win the UAE League,” added O’Leary.