UAE’s reigning Pro League champions Al Wahda overcame a nervy start to beat Hekari United from Papua New Guinea 3-0 in the opening match of the Fifa Club World Cup presented by Toyota at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night.
It was a historic win for the Abu Dhabi-based side on the world stage, banishing bitter memories of last year’s tournament for the host nation when Al Ahli of Dubai suffered a shock defeat at the hands of another side from Oceania Auckland City.
Fifa president Joseph Sepp Blatter graced the ceremonial opening of this annual tournament being held in UAE for the second time turning the attention of football fans once again to the region which is celebrating the awarding of organising the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Al Wahda did not disappoint with a clinical performance on the field against a motley group of amateur footballers from the Pacific islands representing Oceania confederation in this six-team competition.
Brazilians Hugo and Fernando Baiano struck within the space of four minutes before the interval to virtually seal the fate of Hekari in this playoff match while substitute Abdulraheem Jumaa added the icing to their victory with his 71st minute goal to the delight of the nearly 24,000 mostly Wahdawi fans who created a lively atmosphere to this momentous occasion.
Al Wahda qualified to meet Asian champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC of South Korea in a quarter-final on Saturday.
A visibly stunned Hekari United coach Tommy Mana said the match was lost in five minutes during a lapse in concentration.
“It happened in just five minutes. Our plan was to score early ... We lost our possession,” Mana told the post-match news conference.
He defended their tactic of going forward.
“I believe attack is a defensive weapon,” said Mana. “We just slipped up in those five minutes. When you make errors, that’s it.”
On a positive note he said they would learn from this experience and build on it.
“I’m very happy with their performance. They have given their 110 per cent. This is our first experience. Ee have nothing to lose,” he said.
Mana credited Al Wahda as showing greater composure than his team although Hekari failed to profit from the nerves that affected the home side for the opening half hour.
Al Wahda’s Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger also compliment the opposition.
“Hekari are a good team. Of course, they don’t have the experience like our Brazilian players or UAE internationals, but they are very physical, very fit and they fought to the final whistle,” he said.
“It is unfair to talk about a weak opponent. I didn’t expect to win by such a high margin. I’m very happy that we have won this match,” added Hickersberger.
However he was not happy with the way Al Wahda started and felt Al Ahli’s loss last year weighed heavily on the players’ minds.
“Pressure on the team was really great and I could feel it from outside that some players did not cope with this kind of pressure because everybody wanted us to win and not to have the same fate as Al Ahli last season. We couldn’t cope with this pressure very well at the beginning,” he said.
Hickersberger said Hekari United caused a lot of problems with their style of play using long balls. “They were very good in the air. We also started to play the same style and that’s not our style. Also we didn’t make a good build up from the back with the goalkeeper started to play long balls,” he said.
Although they lost their confidence a bit the experienced players managed to turn the game around for Al Wahda, said Hickersberger.
“Brazilian Baiano, Magro and Hugo, they turned the match around together with the experienced national team players from UAE. We got a very very good result but the overall performance especially in the starting period was not a very good one,” he said.
Hekari United surprised the hosts when they threatened to score off the first corner of the match in the fifth minute. Fahad Masoud stood in the way of a pin point header at the near post from Pita Bolatoga.
But this was the only sight of goal the visitors had thereafter until a fine left-footed drive was stopped by a diving Adel Al Hosani in the 81st minute.
Al Wahda controlled the pace and pattern of the game without having to actually step on the accelerator although national star Ismael Matar must be kicking himself after failing to get on the scoresheet being wide of the target on at least two occasions.
Hekari stopper Simione Tamanisau denied Baiano twice in quick succession after 15 minutes. The gaunt Brazilian shot straight to him after doing well to control a lobbed pass from Magrao in the first instance while a minute later a thundering drive from the edge of the box following a fine break by Hugo was blocked by Tamanisau.
On the half hour, a lovely move initiated by midfielder Mahmoud Al Hammadi saw Matar making a dummy run before put clear by Baiano but the UAE striker’s effort only managed to clear the far post.
Al Hammadi who along with Masoud weaved through the Hekari defence time and again, combined beautifully to break the ice for Al Wahda in the 40th minute.
Masood crossed to Al Hammadi who played it back for Hugo to drill it into the right corner with a left-footed strike from outside the box.
Four minutes later, Baiano deservedly found the net when he rifled in from close range between the keeper and the near post after Masood split the defence with a perfect through ball which gave Al Wahda a 2-0 lead at the break.
After the turn around, Baiano triggered another scoring opportunity by providing a long ball to Masoud who put Matar through. But his effort trickled wide of the far post despite a desperate lunge by Baiano.
Hekari stopper Tamanisau parried away a fine left foot volley from Al Hammadi in the 55th minute.
Hugo masterminded Al Wahda’s third goal when his cross across the face of goal beat a diving Tamanisau for Jumaa to bundle it home. Jumaa, who came in for Masood, fluffed a chance two minutes later when his chip over the keeper was off target.
Baiano and Matar were taken off late in the game while substitute Modibi Diarra going close twice in the last ten minutes of the game.
Al Wahda’s coach acknowledged the outstanding performance of non-regular Fahad Masoud and Abdulraheem Jumaa returning from injury.
“They have shown how they can use the experience. Fahad (Masoud) made a very good pass to Baiano and assisted for the important second goal. Abdulraheem (Jumaa) came in and scored third goal. We all know about quality of these players. They are not only star players but also good characters. This is a special moment for them because it’s there first Fifa World Cup and they did well. Nevertheless, we have a match in three days’ time and it would be difficult for them to repeat this performance. For that reason I pulled Fahad out and Abdulraheem played onnly 40 minutes,” he said.
It was for this same reason that he substituted Baiano and Matar when they sewed up the match.
“On Saturday, we need Baiano and Ismael to be in good shape. For that reason when it was 3-0 I changed both players, not to give other players a chance to play. This was secondary. First was to keep players fit and give them better chance to recover fasters,” he said.
Hickersberger admitted he had a big challenge to keep euphoria of winning and keep the players focused. “It starts right now. I will tell the players it’s very important now to go back to the hotel, have dinner, then to sleep for tomorrow morning training’s at 10,” he said.
Having crossed the first hurdle, Hickersberger said they would be better prepared for the tougher encounter against Seongnam Ilhawa.
“The first match in competition is most difficult mentally. I’m quite sure the players will have tension as well in second match but not as much as this for sure. Seongnam will be more difficult to play against. They are experienced, having won Asian cup. We know a lot about them and have lot of respect for the team,” he said.
However, he said they had to pull up their socks if they were realise the dream of making to the semifinals. “We have to play much better than we did today. That’s a must to have any chance to get into semifinals. That would ofcourse be a dream for fans of Al Wahda. I know that players will prepare themselves now for this chance and they will give everything they have in this match. They have to,” said Hickersberger.