After visit to Mecca, summit of Asian Champions League is now just four steps away for Al Ain
And so it goes on, Al Ain’s class of 2014 bounding toward their date with destiny.
Those 2003 trailblazers, mentored by the late Bruno Metsu and mentioned with reverence ever since, do not seem so distant now.
Al Ain’s current crop stand four matches from Asian Champions League glory, from etching their names into Garden City lore. Mohammed Omer and Salem Johar, integral in 2003, may have to make room in the tomes that chronicle the club’s celebrated past. Budge up, boys, you could finally have company.
Comparing generations often constitutes an exercise in futility, and Al Ain have had some vintage artists between then and now, but a group crafted around Omar Abdulrahman’s precision and chiselled by Asamoah Gyan’s prowess suddenly appears worthy of the contrast.
Make no mistake: given Al Ain’s history in this competition, and the pressure that comes with it, their quarter-final with Al Ittihad provided the greatest test in recent memory.
The Saudi Arabians are genuine West Asian heavyweights and twice continental champions.
Over two legs, though, they were dismantled and dispatched.
In the first half of the tie last week, Al Ain overran their physically imposing opponents at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, suggesting it was in fact they who entered the match with two competitive domestic matches already under their belts.
The hosts, breathless despite being still in the preparation stage for the 2014/15 UAE season, were not the least bit hospitable. Ittihad simply had nothing in reply.
To finish the job yesterday, in a traditionally uninviting locale – albeit the match was intentionally played behind closed stadium doors – sets this Al Ain apart from those that have struggled since the club’s last Asian semi-final appearance, back in 2005.
The intervening period, usually barren, only buttressed the burden.
In their past three Champions League campaigns – 2007, 2010 and 2013 – Al Ain failed to emerge from the group stage.
Until now, emulating 2003 seemed an improbable dream, yet the latest squad foster a cautious optimism.
Abdulrahman and Gyan are obvious standouts, but summer recruits Miroslav Stoch and Lee Myung-joo have excelled in two appearances, despite still settling in a new environment.
They bring energy and expertise.
Jires Kembo Ekoko, recently returned from a yearlong loan, is a powerful forward, robust and resolute, well-suited to perform in Asia.
A batch of talented Emiratis – Ismail Ahmed, Mohammed Fayez and Ahmed Barman – furnishes Al Ain with a formidable local contingent to complement Abdulrahman.
The UAE club boast arguably the finest playmaker and striker in the region.
With the pair present, belief abounds.
With Ittihad negotiated, Al Ain will look forward with particular relish to Al Hilal in the semis.
The separation of East and West Asia until the final, introduced this year, enhances chances of reaching a first final in nine years.
Should they get there, a clash with a traditionally stronger Eastern side awaits.
Al Ain would undoubtedly enter as underdogs: since 2006, the title all but once has gone to a team from South Korea, Japan or China.
Whether manager Zlatko Dalic’s men boast the requisite talent to go all the way, to replicate 2003, remains to be seen.
But the swatting aside of Ittihad offers fresh ambition, imbues them with a newfound confidence.
Those hopes remain intact, will intensify, and feel almost tangible. This is their moment.
Four matches from greatness.
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Published: August 27, 2014 04:00 AM