Fifa Club World Cup: How Al Ain can stun River Plate to reach the final

UAE champions face the Copa Libertadores holders in Tuesday's semi-final at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium

Al ain's players celebrates after scoring a goal during the second round match of the FIFA Club World Cup 2018 football tournament between Tunisia's Esperance Tunis and Kashima Antlers and Abu Dhabi's al Ain at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on December 15, 2018.  / AFP / Giuseppe CACACE
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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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Soccer Football - Club World Cup - Quarter Final - Esperance Sportive de Tunis v Al Ain - Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - December 15, 2018  Al-Ain fans celebrate    REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Al Ain fans packed out the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium against Esperance de Tunis and are expected to do the same for the semi-final against River Plate. Reuters

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.


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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.