Sheikh Mohamed and Turki Al Sheikh (left) present the trophy to Etoile’s Yassine Chikhaoui (centre) during a presentation ceremony. Agence France-Presse
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces crowned Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel Zayed Champions Cup winners after the Tunisian club dashed Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal’s dream of an unprecedented clean sweep of trophies.
The newly-crowned champions Etoile were also awarded a $6 million winners’ prize, which is the biggest-ever awarded to an Arab side.
The Saudi Arabian giant’s quest was dramatically dashed in the 91st minute of Thursday’s Zayed Champions Cup final when substitute Mohammad Methnani swept Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel to a memorable 2-1 success.
Watched on by Sheikh Mohamed, Saudi Arabian adviser Turki Al Sheikh, former Crescent boss Jorge Jesus and Brazil legend Ronaldo at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, a drab match of few chances burst into life at the death.
A swift move down the right wing saw Tunisia veteran Maher Hannachi produce a crucial second assist of the game, his low cross being superbly swept in first time by Methnani.
Etoile had gone ahead upon the half-hour mark when Algerian striker Karim Aribi rose highest to nod in a corner. Weary Hilal – who are now more than halfway through a punishing April fixture list that contains nine matches in four different competitions – failed to shine, requiring a questionable penalty from ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis to level on 64 minutes.
Hilal’s all-encompassing plan to conquer the Saudi Super Cup, Saudi Professional League, King’s Cup, 2019 AFC Champions League and the ZSC is, definitively, over.
The onus now rests on head coach Zoran Mamic to ensure more trophies don’t go by the wayside.
That is if he gets the chance to advance. Less than three months since being poached from Al Ain, the 47-year-old’s position is under severe threat even though the top flight’s lead was reclaimed last weeks.
Regrets and recriminations could sweep him aside – fairly or unfairly – in the coming days.
The ex-Croatia international handed a watching brief to the likes of Australia defender Milos Degenek and Italy forward Sebastian Giovinco, amid different foreign eligibility rules.
A strong side that contained the likes of Brazilian talisman Carlos Eduardo, Al Dawsari, first-choice full-backs and Gomis dominated possession (70 per cent/30 per cent) without turning this into any opportunities of note.
Their pot shot from midfielder Mohammed Kanno was the best of a dreary first half.
After the interval, Gomis forced a brave block from goalkeeper Walid Kridene and there was the utterly bizarre sight of a free-kick deep into added time being passed back to unmarked Hilal shot stopper Abdullah Al Mayouf to weakly connect with.
In Thursday’s match, the guidance of 77-year-old Euro 2000 winner Roger Lemerre was key as they, largely, contained Hilal’s threat in the second half.
Mali centre-back Mohamed Konate was both a rock and unlucky to see a penalty conceded for his challenge on Saudi Arabia winger Salem Al Dawsari, plus rangy skipper Yassine Chikhaoui utilised all his experience to threaten on the counter-attack.
This resolute win in the Garden City could now reset the recent order in Tunisian football.
Meanwhile, Manchester City FC is organising free football for children as part of the special City Live! screening of the game against Tottenham this Saturday in Abu Dhabi. The event starts at 3pm on Pitch 12 at Zayed Sports City with the huge top of the Premier League match kicking-off at 3.30pm. After the final whistle blows coaches from City will organise games for boys and girls – all they have to do is turn up in football kit on the day. Ahead of the match, Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, paid tribute to the support from Abu Dhabi and across the UAE.