DEFENDING champions Al Najma snatched a nail-biting, 27-26, win over Qatar’s Al Arabi amid high drama in a stirring, top-of-the-table Group A clash in the 39th GCC Clubs Handball Tournament at the Khalifa Sports City Arena last night.
Having entered the final minute of the match leading 27-25, the Bahraini club saw their opponents inch closer as Al Arabi’s Yousif Mahmoud scored off a belligerent throw with the scoreboard reading 27-26 and just 13 seconds left till the final buzzer.
Al Najma coach Syed Ali Al Falahi immediately called a time-out. After he and his counterpart had had short but urgent strategy discussions with their respective players, play resumed with Al Najma in possession of the ball and Mohammed Habib passed it to the sprightly Adel Mohammed, who fired a bullet throw past Al Arabi goalkeeper Ahmed Abdulhameed but the ball ricocheted off the goalpost.
As all the players started running toward the Al Najma goal, Abdulhameed threw the ball to Mahmoud, who was blocked by Adel Mohammed near the half-line at the same time that the final buzzer went off.
But the two match referees decided that the body block by Mohammed had been unfair and awarded a penalty throw, from the half-line, to Al Arabi with Mahmoud designated to take it.
Six of the Al Najma players were allowed to form a wall, with arms outstretched above their heads, while goalkeeper Mohammed Abdulhussain stood at the ready in front of the goal.
Mahmoud had to loop the ball over the wall to have any chance of the ball dropping into the Al Najma goal. But his throw was too hard, too fast and too high with the ball slamming into the protective net behind the goal and the sizeable crowd, which had cheered the Bahraini side on endlessly, erupted in celebration in the stands.
The win meant that Al Najma finished the group stage with six points from their three consecutive wins and topped Group A. They will now play the second-placed side in Group B in their semi-final on Wednesday while Al Arabi will play the Group B table-toppers in their semi-final the same day.
Al Najma Club president Shaikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, who was present in the arena, told the GDN that he was delighted for his team to be in the semi-finals after a three-win streak in the league stage.
“It was a great performance,” he said. “And it was a very tough win. The team had to work hard for it and they did.
“We won for Bahrain today and everyone was delighted. We want to thank the fans for all their support and congratulations to Bahrain!”
Both teams had already qualified for the semi-finals but both wanted to win the final league match so that they could top the table and the manner in which the first half was played showed that neither side was willing to give an inch.
The first half eventually ended with Al Najma leading 12-11 after having led from the start with Al Arabi only managing to put their noses ahead at 8-7 for about a minute before the Bahraini club restored parity and then edged ahead again.
Al Najma continued to stay just one goal ahead in the second half before finally leading by four goals at 22-18 and ten minutes left in the game.
But Al Arabi were not ready to give up and drew level at 24-24 with four minutes left. A brace by Al Najma’s Egyptian star Ahmed Al Ahmer allowed the Bahraini club to eke out a two-goal lead, at 26-24 with 90 seconds remaining but Mahmoud scored for Al Arabi soon thereafter before Adel Mohammed replied with another goal to make it 27-25 and set the stage for the last-minute drama.
“It was a very tense game,” Shaikh Abdulrahman explained. “I won’t say it was a perfect game because of the turnovers we had in the game – seven or eight turnovers that led to the Qatari team taking advantage.
“However, in the end, we won a very tense and hard game.”
The Al Najma Club president heaped praise on coach Al Falahi and man-of-the-match, goalkeeper Abdulhussain.
“Hats off to coach Syed Ali Al Falahi for his tactical changes during the game and his time-outs at the right time,” Shaikh Abdulrahman said. “And, Mohammed, the goalkeeper, played very well and deserved his man-of-the-match award.
“We will have to wait for the results of the last Group B games today to see who we will play in Wednesday’s semi-final.
“As it stands, we will avoid tournament favourites Al Kuwait club in the semi-final.”
In today’s Group B matches, Bahrain’s Al Ahli, who are second in the four-team table with four points, will play the UAE’s Al Sharjah, who have one point, at 7pm while Al Kuwait, who lead the table with four points, will play Saudi Arabia’s Al Safa, who also have just one point, at 5pm.