January 30, 2017

The Road to the Final

For Aspire, it’s Home Sweet Home

This is the sixth year the Al Kass International Cup has invaded the pitches at Aspire Academy, and every time a visiting team has raised the championship cup at the end of the tournament. That could all change in 2017. The Aspire Academy team has put together a stunning run of form to reach tonight’s final, where they’ll take on Real Madrid. The home side’s previous best finish was in 2013, when they finished seventh.

Aspire was far from being the favorite entering the tournament, as most of the focus was on European clubs such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and two-time champion Paris Saint-Germain. But in their opening match against Raja Casablanca, the Qatar side served notice they weren’t going to be pleasant hosts. After a slow start, Aspire wasted no time in capitalising on Raja captain Riad Idbouiguiguine being sent off for simulation. Hashim Ali fed Abdulrasheed Ibrahim at point-blank range, and Aspire had their lead. Ali added another assist to his tally in the 78 th minute, finding Mekki Tombari with an accurate cross, and his finish was true. Raja got a goal back late, but Aspire was not to be denied winning 2-1.

After the match, forward Ahmed Mohamed Alganehi was already looking to the future, saying, “Today was a good win, but we had to fight hard to secure a victory. We are going to keep pushing and giving of our best to prove that as a team, we are capable of going up against the top regional and international teams.”

The opportunity to prove just that came two days later, against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, and Aspire took full advantage. PSV was coming off a convincing 3-2 win over Raja in their opening match, and seemed to be in the early conversation as a team to beat. Aspire put those talks to rest early. In the 11 th minute, Abdulrasheed Ibrahim intercepted a careless pass in the PSV end and fed Nasser Alahrak for a textbook goal. That was all Aspire would need, though the 1-0 win wasn’t without its drama. PSV appeared to have an equaliser in the final moments, but Yorbe Vertessen missed from three yards. Aspire sealed its spot not only in the quarter-finals, but also atop Group A.

After the match, Aspire Academy captain Nasser Alahrak stressed the importance of the team’s preparation, saying: “Today we tried to apply what we had worked on with the coaching staff. We knew they like to play long balls, so we tried to work on our short passes and push them up. As a result, they made the mistake that we profited from and scored.”

The Al Kass quarter-finals have historically been an insurmountable obstacle for Aspire, and they took the pitch against Espérance de Tunis with that weight on their shoulders. A pair of brilliant goals put the past to rest—and Aspire into the semi-finals. Hashim Ali got Aspire off to another quick start with an athletic score, beating the defence to a long ball from Mohamed Mohamed and popping it over the head of the keeper in the 10 th minute. The match remained a one-goal affair until the 75 th minute, when Yusuf Yusuf doubled the advantage on a stunning left-footed strike from just outside the area. The tally was one of the tournament’s finest goals, and all but sealed Espérance’s fate. The Tunisians added a goal in extra time, but after Yusuf’s goalazo the outcome was never seriously in doubt.

Now in uncharted territory, Aspire entered the semi-finals against Red Bull Salzburg, who had played arguably the best football of any side in the tournament on their way to the final four. And indeed, the Austrians took the first lead, in the 20 th minute. Aspire’s defence did well to keep the deficit at one, and a pair of halftime substitutes reenergised the local side.

In the 59 th minute, one of those subs, Abdulrasheed Ibrahim, collected an inviting long ball and equalised. Salzburg were demoralised, and in the 78 th minute Ahmed Sebaie drew a foul in the box in the scramble for a header. Nasser Alrahak calmly drove home the penalty, touching off a raucous celebration on the pitch and in the stands. Salzburg couldn’t find the goal they needed, and Aspire had made history with a 2-1 win.

“In our training sessions and in our preparations for this tournament, we have tried to build the team’s confidence level, body language and determination to approach the games in very clever manners,” says Aspire coach Bruno Nogueira. “I think it is paying off.”