Arabian Gulf League holders Al Ain, competing in the Fifa Club World Cup UAE 2018 as host representatives, take on South American champions River Plate in the Tuesday's semi-final. The UAE champions face an enormous task in their bid to reach the final, but as John McAuley explains, Zoran Mamic's side have an opportunity to shock their illustrious opponents.
Using the squad well
Al Ain’s preparations for the tournament had been far from ideal. The squad and coaching staff were hit by a virus, a predicament that prevented star striker Marcus Berg from starting either match.
Against Esperance de Tunis, the experienced Ibrahim Diaky was unable to take even a place on the bench. Others had been similarly affected. Some have had to carry on regardless.
It is to Al Ain’s immense credit that they managed to reach this point. Now, with resources stretched and stressed – the UAE champions played more than 210 minutes in three days – Zoran Mamic needs to manage his squad again.
He will be buoyed by the fact the virus seems to have subsided, and that Berg should be fit to return. Also, Mohammed Abdulrahman is available after suspension. Nonetheless, the exertions of the past week will have taken their toll.
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Countering the Copa champions
It was more born of necessity, but Al Ain's tactics on Saturday proved perfect. Knowing Esperance would attack, and shorn of frontman Berg and other prominent players, Mamic chose to sit his side deep and hit their opponents on the counter.
It worked wonderfully, with wingers Caio and Hussein El Shahat, effervescent and always eager to sprint forward, thriving at the tip of the attack. Al Ain’s second goal, a blistering breakaway involving both those auxiliary forwards, was testament to their convictions.
Berg’s availability for River provides Mamic a welcome dilemma, but Al Ain would be wise to devise a comparable game plan, even with the Sweden international apparently fit.
River will control possession, dictate tempo and plot forward. It could leave gaps. With the pace of Caio and El Shahat, and ably supported by the excellent Bandar Al Ahbabi, Al Ain are capable of hurting the Argentines.
Al Ain's win over Esperance de Tunis in pictures
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Mastering the midfield
Unquestionably, River represent the superior side, one of South America's most storied clubs, winners of the Copa Libertadores less than 10 days ago. In the final, they eventually outlasted nemesis Boca Juniors and everything that fixture entails.
Therefore, in theory, a clash against the UAE champions should not hold too much fear. Yet, that too brings pressure. To take advantage, Al Ain will have to get right their approach in midfield.
For sure, Ahmed Barman and recent recruit Tongo Doumbia add ballast, while the returning Mohammed Abdulrahman promises a little more creativity.
That leaves Mamic with much to ponder around them: retain right wing-back Al Ahbabi in an advanced role, revert to Caio and El Shahat flanking Berg, or maintain Rayan Yaslam, involved in all three goals against Esperance, as an attacking midfielder. The make-up of Al Ain’s midfield could prove decisive.
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Playing to the crowd
In the aftermath on Saturday, Berg said it was the loudest he had heard the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in his 16 months at Al Ain. Mohammed Ahmed, a club servant a lot longer, spoke of how the atmosphere had galvanised his teammates.
Basking in his side’s emphatic 3-0 victory, Mamic thanked Al Ain’s fans for their support, adding he was “sure for the semi-final it will be better”. The Hazza bin Zayed Stadium had rocked.
Clearly feeding off the throb, Al Ain ran riot. More than 21,000 reportedly attended the quarter-final, and a nod has to go to the raucous contingent sporting Esperance red and yellow.
No doubt, a similar atmosphere against River can be used to hoist Al Ain above the hubbub. It can drive their players. It could provide the hosts, easily underdogs, that extra thrust to get over the line.
Zoran Mamic: Al Ain must be ambitious against River Plate in Fifa Club World Cup semi-final
Keeping cool in heat of battle
The most impressive takeaway from the Esperance victory was how well Al Ain managed the match. Here they were, contesting perhaps their most high-profile fixture to date, with the pressure to perform as hosts and on the back of near calamity against semi-professional Team Wellington only three days previously.
Two-nil up at half-time against Esperance, many expected an onslaught after the break, for the African champions to offer a genuine test of Al Ain’s mettle. But it never materialised, in part because Esperance could not shake from their obvious funk.
In contrast, Al Ain were calm, composed, and if anything should have been more cutthroat. Three-nil flattered Esperance. On Tuesday, River will test their temperament more. Al Ain must keep cool, for undeniably there will be times when proceedings peak the pulse-rate and scatter the brain.