Unlike the Uefa Champions League, there is no country protection in the first knock-out stage of Asia’s premier club competition. By the end of next week’s second leg of this last-16 encounter, Zlatko Dalic’s Al Ain will have faced Cosmin Olaroiu’s Al Ahli five times this season.
A sixth could materialise should both navigate their way past quarter-final opponents in the domestic President’s Cup this weekend.
The draw does at least guarantee that one Emirati club will reach the ACL quarter finals. Good news for UAE football, but not necessarily for the UAE football team.
The national team coach Mahdi Ali is wise enough to appreciate the benefits of playing at this level. But for him, the timing could not be worse.
At the weekend he called up 24 players for the upcoming friendly against South Korea in Seoul and the UAE’s first 2018 Asian World Cup qualifier against Timor-Leste on June 16. Of those, nine came from Al Ain and seven from Al Ahli.
But in their absence over the last two days, the training camp in Abu Dhabi has had the feel of a pre-season get-together, with most of the 16 players present either youngsters or fringe players.
When the Arabian Gulf League opted to end the season on May 11 rather than the original date of May 30, Mahdi Ali was worried that would leave his players inactive for too long before the start of the World Cup campaign. The rescheduling of the President's Cup in between the two eased concerns on that front.
Except now Al Ain and Al Ahli’s continental success means Mahdi Ali has got more than he bargained for.
Tonight he will watch knowing that injuries to any key players could throw his preparations into chaos.
The UAE where one of few countries not to have an international game during Fifa’s last window, in March, meaning they will have gone five full months between games before they face South Korea on June 11.
It is a bittersweet for Mahdi Ali, who had sacrificed a UAE friendly in March to help an increasingly busy domestic timetable, in particular for Al Ain and Al Ahli, who played the postponed Super Cup on March 27.
Mahdi Ali’s reliance on Al Ahli and Al Ain players to achieve that target cannot be overstated.
Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman, his brother Mohammed, and the defensive partnership of Mohanad Salem and Mohamed Ahmad form the spine of the team. While Al Ahli goalkeeper and UAE captain Majed Naser, Habib Fardan, Majid Hassan, Ismail Al Hammadi and the rejuvenated Ahmed Khalil are all Mahdi Ali favourites.
Wednesday, these players will be at each others’ throats again, everyone’s thoughts on securing a place in the ACL quarter-finals.
Everyone’s except, perhaps, those of Mahdi Ali.
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