Two wins and a draw. After last year’s showing, the UAE contingent in this season’s Asian Champions League (ACL) could not have asked for a much better start to the group stages.
What a difference a year makes.
On Tuesday night, Al Jazira led by example, beating Al Rayyan at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The next day Al Ahli came away from Riyadh with a creditable 2-2 draw with Saudi champions Al Hilal.
But perhaps the most significant result came at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium where Al Ain put their poor league campaign behind them to beat Lekhwiya of Qatar 2-1. Manager Quique Sanchez Flores lives to fight another day, it seems.
It was Al Ain’s first win at their new stadium and, with playmaker Omar Abdulrahman missing through injury, could not have been more timely for the under-fire team and coach.
For Al Ahli and resurgent Al Jazira, the results were just as welcome.
Last year, Matchday 1 had resulted in comprehensive defeats for Al Shabab, Al Nasr and Al Jazira, with only Al Ain winning their opener at home against Al Hilal 3-1. This set the tone for what would turn out to be a dismal campaign, with only Al Shabab progressing to the knockout stages where they were promptly dismissed 4-2 on aggregate by Esteghlal of Iran.
What made the results even more disappointing was that they came after the UAE’s brilliant Gulf Cup victory in Bahrain at the start of the year. The hope for that triumph to spread to regional dominance at the club level did not materialise, all four teams routinely being beaten by teams from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
This time around expectations were lower, but the level of performances proved higher.
Perhaps the performance of the round belonged to Al Ahli in Riyadh, were the King Fahd Stadium rocked to more than 38,000 Al Hilal fans, a crowd unheard of in the UAE. But Ahli took a 2-0 lead with two superb counter-attack goals and should have held on for victory.
So where do these three games leave the Emirati hopefuls?
It is too early to hail a renaissance for Emirati clubs in the ACL.
Al Ain fans will not need reminding that their opening-day win last year proved little more than a mirage.
Tougher challenges lie ahead in the group stages, particularly away from home in which the Emirati clubs have shown a chronic inability to win.
Iran, in particular, seems to present an insurmountable obstacle.
Of the 12 away fixtures by Emirati clubs in last year’s group stage, 10 were lost. Al Ain and Al Jazira lost all their matches on the road.
Al Nasr managed a 2-2 draw against Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia in a dead rubber and Al Shabab managed a lone win against Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan.
This trend highlights the importance of winning all your home matches, which is not always possible, or, in the case of the Emirati teams, not enough to counter balance poor away results.
Al Shabab’s win at Tashkent on the last match day proved the difference between elimination and progress. More of that is needed. Not that reaching the knockout rounds is in any way a cure for the away-day blues.
If anything, shortcomings are exposed even more over two legs.
No Emirati team has won a two-legged knockout tie since Al Wahda overcame Al Hilal on the away-goals rule in 2007.
In fact, apart from Al Shabab’s brief flirtation last year, the UAE’s only two involvements in the knockout rounds came in 2012, both against Saudi opposition: a 4-2 aggregate loss for Al Jazira to Al Ahli, and an embarrassing 7-1 thrashing for Baniyas against Al Hilal.
The midweek results have raised hopes, but we still await that first away win.
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