Al Ahli’s bid to qualify for the semi-finals of the 39th GCC Clubs Handball Tournament ended in heartbreak after they lost, 23-26, to the UAE’s Al Sharjah club in their last Group B match at the Khalifa Sports City Arena last night.
The Bahraini club, who were second in the four-team table with two points, needed to win their third and final game to have any chance of making it to the last-four stage. Al Sharjah, who had only one point from a draw and a loss in their first two games, similarly needed a win to skip ahead of Al Ahli.
And a stunning upset in the earlier Group B game yesterday – between tournament favourites Al Kuwait, who led the table with four points, and Saudia Arabia’s Al Safa, who, also, had only one point before that game – when the Saudi club pipped the Kuwaiti side, 26-25, upped the ante for both Al Ahli and Al Sharjah.
With Kuwait having held on to their position as table-leaders, suddenly Al Safa were second in the table with three points. This meant that, if Al Ahli won, they would bag two points and skip past the Saudi club to secure a place in the semi-finals. But, if Al Sharjah won, they would leapfrog past Al Ahli to draw level with Al Safa on three points, leaving the decision on which of the two teams would go through to the last-four to be tabulated on goal difference.
But, as the final group game of the tournament entered its second half, it was the UAE club who were leading, 13-11, at half-time, much to the dismay of the Al Ahli fans who, clad in their team’s yellow shirts, had packed the stands.
But they perked up as Al Ahli slowly reduced the gap in the first 10 minutes of the second half, coming within one point at 16-17, before drawing level, for the first time in the game, at 18-18 with 15 minutes left till full-time, thanks to two consecutive goals by the irrepressible Sadiq Ali.
The Al Ahli supporters, sensing something special was happening, were overjoyed as they banged their drums, clapped and sang loudly to cheer their team on.
But Al Sharjah took a one-point lead again in the very next minute, courtesy of man-of-the-match Musbah Al Sanae before Saud Bilal put the visitors two-points ahead at 20-18, with 11 minutes to go.
Two minutes later, Ahmed Hilal made it a three-point lead for Al Sharjah but the electric Abdulla Ali enable Al Ahli to come within one point again with two back-to-back goals over the next couple of minutes with the scoreboard reading 20-21 in favour of the UAE team.
Al Sanae, then, scored again to push his side back to a two-point lead at 22-20 but Al Ahli’s Mohmoud Hussain replied quickly with a goal of his own and, with just six minutes left, the Bahraini club were within touching distance again at 21-22.
The powerfully-built Al Sanae was on song, though, and he burst through the Al Ahli defensive cordon to put Al Sharjah two points ahead again at 23-21 but the left-handed Anwar bin Al Munji brought the Bahraini club within one point once more at 22-23 and just under four minutes left.
Al Sunae wasn’t done for the night, however and he soon increased the lead to two points again with a trademark rocketing throw that Al Ahli goalkeeper Kareem Hindawi was unable to stop with the scoreboard now reading 24-22 for Al Sharjah with less than three minutes to go.
A minute later, Firas Mohammed made it 25-22 but Al Ahli reduced the margin by one point through Hussain Jaffer within the next 30 seconds.
However, the game had now entered its final 60 seconds and Al Ahli needed a miracle to help them score the three points they needed for the outright win that would enable them to reach the semi-finals.
But the Al Sharjah defence held firm and, to rub further salt into the Bahraini club’s wounds, the UAE side’s goalkeeper, Mohammed Esmaeel threw a long ball from within his own penalty area straight into the unguarded Al Ahli goal to get another vital point just as the buzzer went off to signal the end of the game.
Now second in the Group B table with three points – but ahead of Al Safa, who had the same tally, because of goal difference – Al Sharjah will play defending champions Al Najma – who topped Group A with six points from three consecutive wins – in their semi-final tomorrow.
Al Kuwait will face off against Qatar’s Al Arabi, who finished second in Group A with four points, in the second semi-final.