Duke books ACL knockout spot after roller-coaster month in Saudi Arabia

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It has been a roller-coaster few weeks for Mitchell Duke since he signed for Saudi Arabian club Al-Taawoun, but Thursday was definitely the high point for the Australian attacker.

With his new team needing to defeat Al-Duhail of Qatar in the final group game of the AFC Champions League to progress to the knockout stage, Duke, with a bandaged head after an earlier clash, headed home the only goal from a corner in emphatic fashion with four minutes remaining.

No wonder the celebrations were wild. Duke, who signed for the Buraidah side in August from Western Sydney Wanderers, had just booked a first-ever place in the second round in Al-Taawoun’s history.

It was an unlikely victory. Al-Taawoun had won both their games in Group C back in February before coronavirus caused the tournament to be suspended in March.

A place in the next stage looked well within reach especially with their new Australian signing but after the resumption, things were not going quite so smoothly.

Even with the in-form Duke in their side, Al-Taawoun lost all three of their next continental games without scoring a single goal and slipped from top spot to third.

Now however, they are now preparing to face fellow Saudi team Al-Nasr on Sunday with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.

With defending champions Al-Hilal forced to withdraw from the tournament on Wednesday after being only able to field nine starting players due to a coronavirus outbreak, the western half of the tournament is wide-open.

“It was a well-taken goal from Duke,” said Al-Taawoun’s coach Patrice Carteron. “That is the quality he has and that is what made the difference for us in the game.

"We fought hard and kept going until the end and now we have to focus on the next match. We don’t have much time to recover but we are looking forward to the challenge."

Carteron is already Duke’s third coach since arriving in the Middle East, if caretaker boss Abdullah Asiri is included, and was a controversial appointment.

Carteron arrived in Saudi Arabia to take over as head coach on September 16. He replaced Portuguese boss Vitor Campelos, a big Duke fan according to reports, who was fired at the end of August after a run of six defeats left Al-Taawoun in the bottom half of the Saudi Pro League standings.

The day before he was named as Al-Taawoun’s coach, the Frenchman had suddenly and shockingly resigned as head coach of Egyptian giants Zamalek.

It upset many in North Africa, especially as Zamalek had been scheduled to take on Raja Casablanca in the CAF Champions League semi-finals the following week (the games were later pushed back to October).

“Carteron has betrayed Zamalek. He left the team at a crucial moment before the Champions League semifinal,” Egyptian legend Wael Gomaa said.

“The fact that he paid the termination clause by himself shows that he betrayed the club.”

Carteron may have left the semi-finals in Africa behind but a place in the last eight in Asia is within reach, especially if Duke has found his scoring touch.

Source SBS The World Game