A sublime goal in the first half of extra time by midfielder Walid Al Tayeb enabled Al Hala, reduced to 10 men, to beat a battling Manama side, 2-1, in the first King Cup semi-final at the Muharraq Stadium last night, propelling them to their first final since 2007.
After the regulation 90 minutes had ended with the score tied at 1-1, Al Tayeb’s moment of brilliance came in the eighth minute of extra time when he received a clever pass from Al Hala captain Ali Adnan right at the top of the Manama box.
Al Tayeb then dribbled around a defender who was caught wrong-footed and fired the ball past the left of Manama goalkeeper Ammar Mohamed Abbas into the net to put his side 2-1 ahead.
With only 20-odd minutes left in the game, Manama went on the attack as they desperately sought the equaliser, breaching the Al Hala defences time and again as a strong contingent of their supporters in the stands urged them on.
But, try as they might, Manama just could not score off nearly seven creative plays as the clock ticked closer to the end of extra time, with shots going either wide of, or over the goal.
Their best chance came with just two minutes to go when Isa Moosa Naji, who had come on as a substitute just ten minutes earlier, curled the ball into the Al Hala box from 25 yards away.
Two Manama players – Ahmed Merza and Ahmed Nabeel – slid desperately across the turf right next to each other as the ball looped toward the right goalpost but both failed to make contact with it and Al Hala goalkeeper Mohammed Abdulraheem heaved a sigh of relief.
Earlier, Manama got off to a good start in the first half, maintaining possession of the ball and dominating proceedings as the Al Hala defence was put under pressure repeatedly.
But Manama just could not manage to score, despite several good opportunities going begging until the 15th minute when Syrian midfielder Mohammed Almarmour was awarded a free kick close to the left of the Al Hala box.
As Almarmour’s looping cross travelled over a couple of Al Hala defenders, national team and Manama star Mahdi Abduljabbar positioned himself with his back to the goal, threw himself backwards and his overhead kick sent the ball bouncing into the left of the net, with Abdulraheem caught completely off guard.
Now, 1-0 ahead, Manama’s joy was destined to last only for a short while as, barely 25 minutes later, Al Hala were provided an opportunity to score when their new recruit, the striker from Mali, Amara Bagayoko was brought down in their opponents’ box in an obvious foul.
Teammate Alain Eyenga, the 27-year-old defender from Cameroon, stepped up to take the resulting penalty and calmly deposited the ball into the left half of the net, past the outstretched hand of the diving Abbas.
The Al Hala supporters in the stands cheered loudly as the scoreboard now read 1-1 and their team appeared to be revitalised, taking their new-found momentum into the second half where, in contrast to the first, they completely dominated proceedings.
Even the loss of Qutbuddin Hussain in the 84th minute – sent off by the referee for a blatant foul – didn’t hamper their intent as they began to completely outplay their opponents.
It was only when, fueled by desperation in the last 15 minutes or so of the match, Manama launched one stirring attack after another on their goal, did Al Hala look likely to concede the game-saving equaliser their opponents sought.
But luck was on their side and, when the final whistle blew, some of the Al Hala players – and, indeed, some of their supporters – were overcome by emotion as they realised that a 16-year long wait to play another King Cup final was over.
They will now eagerly await the result of the second semi-final between Riffa and Al Ahli to see who they are likely to play in the final.
If Al Hala do go on to win the final, it will be their fourth title win – and their first since 1981.