Al Ain can see a silver lining to a dark season

There are things to look forward to, but a gruelling schedule awaits the Garden City club.
Al Ain fans made their presence felt at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, making sure their team knew they were pleased with a 2-1 win over host Al Jazira in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the Asian Champions League on May 6, 2014. Mona Al Marzooqi /  The National
Al Ain fans made their presence felt at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, making sure their team knew they were pleased with a 2-1 win over host Al Jazira in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the Asian Champions League on May 6, 2014. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

The Al Ain players spent the six minutes of added time in Tuesday night’s last-16 Asian Champions League first leg playing at walking pace, looking to deal Al Jazira a late, decisive knockout punch.

It did not come.

Still, at the final whistle, the Al Ain fans at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi twirled their scarves, and coach and players looked thoroughly satisfied. A 2-1 win in a titanic all-UAE ACL clash against Al Jazira will do.

Now, a win, a draw or even a 1-0 defeat at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in next Wednesday’s return match will see Al Ain become the first Emirati club in the quarter-finals of the continent’s premier club competition since Al Wahda reached the last eight in 2007. At times it looked like it would be an even easier task.

A stunning goal each by Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman inside a storming first 15 minutes allowed Al Ain to settle down, wait for Al Jazira to chase the match, and hit on the break. A three or four-goal lead at half-time would not have flattered Al Ain.

Then, Mussalem Fayez’s excellent header ensured a hectic last half-hour for Al Ain’s defence. What was a walk in the park became a genuine contest, with Al Jazira looking the stronger team at the finish.

A goal lead and two away goals would have Al Ain feeling that the job is almost done.

But that only tells half the story, for that last-16 second leg will come in the middle of an unforgiving run of matches that will stretch Zlatko Dalic’s squad to its limits over the next 11 days.

Before the return leg, Al Ain will face Al Wasl on Saturday in the last match of the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League campaign. A place in next season’s Asian Champions League is still up for grabs as, mathematically, they can still finish fourth or even third.

These remain unlikely scenarios, requiring results in matches involving Al Shabab, Al Jazira and Al Nasr to go their way, but they are opportunities Al Ain cannot afford to ignore.

So does Dalic play his first-choice team in Dubai this weekend, or does he put all his eggs in the Champions League basket and put out his strongest team against Al Jazira?

There is no room for complacency. With two wins and a draw in their three away group-stage matches, Al Jazira are not to be underestimated in what will be their final match of the season.

The second leg, though, does not signal the end of big matches for Al Ain. Eight days later there is the President’s Cup final against Al Ahli in Abu Dhabi. For so many reasons, defeat does not bear thinking about for the Garden City club against their fiercest domestic rivals.

Matters are further complicated by the high profile “exhibition” match against Manchester City next Thursday following the second leg and, potentially, just days after the visitors are likely to have wrapped up the English Premier League title.

Initially the match had been scheduled for January, as the showpiece opening for Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, but was then shelved because of City’s FA Cup commitments. Now, key players such as Abdulrahman, Gyan and Alex Brosque will be expected to only play a small part in the match, perhaps up to 15 minutes, in preparation for the cup final.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the Al Ain team will be bolstered with several guest stars from other Arabian Gulf League clubs, to which the club has not commented.

Al Ain’s players have already said how much they are looking forward to playing against the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure, but there is real danger physical and mental fatigue might creep in.

This is new ground for many of the squad, in more ways than one.

Several of these players will not have played in the knockout stages of the Champions League before. The prospect of playing in August’s quarter-final against some of the Eastern Asia zone heavyweights will be even more daunting.

After two successful seasons in which they were crowned UAE champions under Cosmin Olaroiu, in 2012 and 2013, Al Ain have endured a wretched league campaign this term. Quique Sanchez Flores’s appointment ended in disappointment and the team failed to sustain any consistent run of form.

The next 11 days could yet see them salvage their season. A win in the President’s Cup final will put a gloss on a disappointing domestic season. But first they must complete the job against Al Jazira.

Dalic acknowledged the team’s fitness and strength are being tested as they stagger over the season’s finish line.

“We lost power and energy, and I had to change three players,” he said last night. “It will be a hard job in Al Ain.”

Will they have the legs to finish it?

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: May 7, 2014 04:00 AM

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