Al Ain and Ahli streets apart
The increasingly bitter rivalry between Al Ain and Al Ahli was the story of last season in domestic UAE football, and it looks like it will be the story of the coming one, too.
The season included coach Cosmin Olaroiu’s defection to the latter, lawsuits, ill-tempered matches and Ahli winning the Arabian Gulf League title to end the recent dominance of Al Ain.
Thankfully, next season feels less acrimonious than the last – so far, at least. The narrative, though, looks set to continue.
This season, the clubs are eyeing different routes to success; revolution at Al Ain, stability at Al Ahli.
Last week, the Romanian midfielder Mirel Radoi left the former to join his old boss and compatriot Olaroiu at Rashid Stadium.
Unlike Olaroiu, Radoi had been released by Al Ain at the end of last season, so accusations of betrayal this time around do not stand. Still, Al Ain’s fans will not be delighted that their former player joined the reigning champions.
The decision to acquire a player who brings a wealth of experience on a free transfer was a no-brainer for the Al Ahli coach.
Radoi is an Olaroiu man, having previously played under the coach at Al Ain and Steaua Bucharest in Romania.
But in many ways, it was an understandable decision for Al Ain’s coach to let him go, just as it was for Olaroiu to grab him.
After last season’s dismal league campaign, Zlatko Dalic had no option but to revamp a squad that finished sixth in the table, 21 points behind Ahli.
He has gone about that task in a decisive manner. With the exception of Ghanian World Cup star Asamoah Gyan, out went the club’s foreign contingent of Radoi, the Moroccan Yassine El Ghanassy and Alex Brosque of Australia.
The three new players are comparatively young. Miroslav Stoch, 24, of Slovakia from Turkish club Fenerbahce, joins Korean Lee Myong-joo, also 24, from Pohang Steelers, and Al Wasl’s 23-year-old Rashid Essa, who is on a one-year loan.
Dalic hopes to improve the squad, while at the same time, significantly lowering its average age.
The three relatively experienced internationals were bought with a view of playing a part in what Dalic promises will be a different style, with “faster rhythm”, over the coming season.
He also predicts that the return of Jires Kembo, a player who was on loan at Al Jaish, will be another major factor in shaping a team in his own image after only three months in charge last season.
Dalic’s youth policy will be supplemented by the presence of the club’s two star players, Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman. And by experience too.
Radoi will perform a similar job at Ahli, a team whose five foreign players are, in stark contrast to their rivals, over age 30.
That experience should ensure that the shift in power may take a while longer to reverse for Al Ain.
Ahli may have performed poorly in the Asian Champions League group stage – becoming the only Emirati club not to make the knockout stages – but even that disappointment has a silver lining.
Al Ain have the distraction of facing two-legged quarter-final legs against Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia next month, and potentially more continental fixtures after that.
By contrast, Al Ahli can concentrate their efforts until the end of the year on the three domestic trophies they came so close to claiming last season.
Olaroiu will also feel his squad is more settled than their rivals’, and can call on the trusted foreign trio of Grafite, Luis Jimenez, and Ciel.
Radoi is Ahli’s only summer signing, and there is still time for the club to make other moves in the market.
Still, it is hard to see Al Ain’s brave new world upsetting Al Ahli’s well-oiled machine. Expect Olaroiu to once again be wearing a big smile next May.
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Published: July 20, 2014 04:00 AM