Analysis: Manama topple much-changed holders for first-ever win
Manama: Just under four months ago, Al Ahed FC were celebrating their finest hour as the Lebanese side lifted the 2019 AFC Cup after defeating DPR Korea’s 4.25 SC in the final in Kuala Lumpur.
On Monday, the defending champions suffered their first defeat in the competition since May 2018 as Bahrain’s Manama Club proved too good for a side that bore little resemblance to the one that tasted Continental glory to, in turn, pick up their maiden AFC Cup victory.
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Cracks in the wall
Much of Al Ahed’s 2019 success was built on their solid defence, with the Beirut side conceding just three goals in their entire 11-game campaign and none in the knockout rounds.
While the goals did not flow – they averaged just one a game – their backline was almost impenetrable, with goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil named the 2019 AFC Cup’s MVP after a string of excellent performances that included nine clean sheets.
In front of him, Khalil Khamis and Ahmad Al Saleh were also key cogs in the finely tuned defensive unit, but the trio have all since departed and on Monday at Khalifa Sports City Stadium it showed.
As early as the third minute, only a flying save from goalkeeper Ali Daher denied Isa Moosa from opening the scoring and the custodian was again on hand to thwart Isa Al Anezi on the stroke of half-time.
With gaping holes in the visitors’ defence, Al Anezi finally broke the deadlock midway through the second half and, after his excellent first-half saves, Daher may feel he could have done better to prevent what proved to be the only goal of the game.
Lack of firepower
If the holders’ defence is depleted, then their attack is arguably suffering even more as they managed just five shots on goal, none of which were on target, compared to the hosts' 12 (five on target).
The scorers of their winning goals in last year’s final and two knockout rounds – Issah Yakubu, Ahmed Akaichi and Mohamad Kdouh – have also headed for pastures new, leaving just two players who contributed goals to their 2019 success still at the club.
The burden of expectation in the upcoming matches will likely fall on the shoulders of Ahmad Zreik, who was on the scoresheet in the opening-day win over Palestine’s Hilal Al Quds, but the forward had an off day on Monday and managed just one effort on goal.
While Al Ahed were largely able soak up pressure and secure narrow wins in their title-winning season, early indications show that improvements will be needed in both defence and attack if the holders are to be in contention this time round.
Manama worthy of praise
The defending champions may not be replicating their form of 2019, but Manama are well worthy of praise after the Bahraini side secured their maiden win in Continental football.
In 2018, they lost five – including twice to Al Ahed – as they exited at the group stage but, after a goalless draw against Syria’s Al Jaish on Matchday One, they now have four points from two matches and on Monday they took the game to the holders.
Al Anezi, in particular, looks capable of causing problems for opposing defences. All four of his attempts were on target, with only Daher's reflexes preventing an early goal, before he eventually got on the scoresheet to secure the three points.
With back-to-back games against bottom side Hilal Alquds to come, Manama have the chance to exert their authority on Group A as the unlikely dream of knockout round qualification may start to become a reality.
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