Rodrigo Moreno’s last-gasp goal made the difference as 10-man Al Rayyan defeated Al Arabi 1-0 in their Week 4 clash of the 2023-2024 season Expo Stars League at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Saturday.
The league was resuming after a hiatus of over 20 days, and table toppers Al Rayyan continued from where they stopped, with former Leeds United forward Rodrigo snatching a 90+7 minute goal for his team, off an assist from Achraf Bencharki, to ensure the continuation of their perfect start to the season.
The much-anticipated thriller, played in front of a record crowd of 28,397, lived up to its billing as a top-rated match both on and off the field, with fans of both sides cheering relentlessly for their teams the entire duration of the game.
The two sides have enjoyed different fortunes since the beginning of the season. While Al Rayyan have won all three matches so far and are comfortably sitting on top of the rankings with the maximum nine points, The Dream Team, on the other hand, have only managed draws in all of theirs.
Newly-signed Marco Verratti got his first start as an Al Arabi player in the highly-entertaining encounter and the ex-PSG midfielder did not disappoint, as his impact was greatly felt, especially with his ball distribution and control of the midfield.
Al Arabi gave their statement of intent as early as the second minute, when Abdullah Marafee tried a through ball that cut through Al Rayyan’s defence, but Abdou Diallo was subsequently caught offside. Omar Al Somah and Rafinha subsequently missed at least three attempts within the next five minutes.
Al Arabi had a penalty call overtuned by VAR in the 15th minute after Al Rayyan’s Bassam Al Rawi seemed to have brought down Abdullah Marafee in the 18-yard box.
Yousef Msakni was the tormentor in chief for Al Arabi for most of the first half, as his overlapping runs and impressive footwork often proved too much for the Al Rayyan sides to handle as the Tunisian forward kept drawing fouls that resulted in free kicks for his side.
Despite many close calls, the first half ended goalless, with both teams guilty of considerable profligacy in front of goal.
With tension boiling on both sides, Al Rayyan captain Abdulaziz Hatem got the matching orders in the 73rd minute after a dangerous high-heel tackle on Al Arabi’s Rafinha. Reduced to 10 men, Al Rayyan rejigged their formation with extra focus on the defence while not reducing their intensity going forward. Rodrigo Tabata was brought in to replace Brazilian Gabriel Pereira in the 79th minute.
Msakni almost broke the deadlock in the 87th minute, but his 20-yard thunderbolt of a shot, off a Verratti assist, grazed the upright with goalkeeper Fahad Baker already beaten.
Al Rayyan got their own “almost there” moment when Tabata’s goal-bound header from the centre of the box in the third minute of injury time was surprisingly saved in the centre of the goal.
Their wait was not for too long as Rodrigo made the difference four minutes later to give the teeming fans in red mufflers much to cheer about as the match ended with smiles on their faces.