BAHRAIN's Al Shabab succumbed to defending champions Al Rayyan of Qatar 29-31 last night in both teams' opening match of the 33rd GCC Clubs Handball Championship, being played at the Bahrain Handball Association arena in Um Al Hassam, reports PATRICK SALOMON.
The victors used their superior size perfectly to their advantage to eke out the hard-earned victory against their inspired rivals, who made the most of the home support.
In the end, however, the reigning titlists proved too strong as they completed the all-important first step towards defending their coveted crown.
With the result, Rayyan moved right to the top of group 'B' in the competition's preliminary round after Al Ahli of the UAE and Kuwait Sports Club (SC) played to a 34-34 stalemate in yesterday's other divisional encounter.
Kuwait SC held a narrow 17-15 lead at the half, but Ahli did well to come back and in the end manage just enough to force the tie.
Both sides claimed a share of the points as they are now ranked in the middle of the group.
Leaders Rayyan were the aggressors from the very start in their win over Shabab.
After taking a 16-12 advantage into the break, Rayyan did well hold off a pair of second-half rallies from the Bahrainis.
Shabab managed to battle back to within one goal, 20-21, midway through the concluding 30-minute period, but then goals on four straight possessions for the Qataris helped them move back ahead for a 25-21 lead.
Rayyan continued to show their class but Shabab would not give in and an Ahmed Baqer goal brought them back to within a single strike once more, 25-26.
Towering Serbian professional, known to his teammates as Marko, then converted a key penalty with less than five minutes remaining in the contest to put Rayyan up 28-26, before the Qataris added another to extend their advantage to three.
Shabab made one last push catalysed by a pair of Mahdi Saad goals that made it 28-30, but it was too little too late as Rayyan and Rayyan spoiled the tournament opening for their Bahraini rivals.
This year's championship is being hosted by Bahrain's Al Ahli Club, who won their first group 'A' fixture on Saturday against Muscat Club of Oman.
Action continues today with another two games on the cards. At 5.30pm, Muscat face off with Qatar's Al Sadd followed by Bahrain's Ahli going head to head with Mudhar of Saudi Arabia at around 7.15pm.
The championship is being held under the patronage of Supreme Council for Youth and Sports first deputy chairman Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
There are eight teams in all, divided into two groups for the preliminaries. The top two from each following a single round-robin move on to the semi-finals.