Al Ain must seize the moment against wounded giants Al Hilal in Riyadh

UAE side have shown they have what it takes to prevail in Asian Champions League semi-final second leg

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“Fear None” declared the banner, unfurled across the largest section of Al Ain fans at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

Extended opposite the player tunnel, the tifo welcomed both sets of players as they entered the pitch for what became one of the most memorable nights in the Garden City.

The sentiment, stretched across the East Stand, was admirable, but it seemed a little fanciful, too.

Should Al Ain really not fear Al Hilal? The record four-time Asian Champions League winners, runners-up last year, arrived for the semi-final first leg on a 34-match win streak. Last month, they made global headlines as holders of a new world record.

The run took root all the way back in September. Al Nassr, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane and Marcelo Brozovic et al, couldn’t stop their Riyadh rivals, defeated on two occasions.

Al Ittihad, the reigning Saudi Pro League champions boasting the likes of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, and goal guarantor Abderrazak Hamdallah, had come up short against the current runaway league leaders – four times.

There were Champions League excursions to India, Uzbekistan and Iran, the latter considered one of the most unwelcoming stops in Asian club football. But Hilal cast aside them all.

They had done so for the majority without Neymar, their superstar signing injured last October after five matches for his new club. More recently, they had to make do without Aleksandar Mitrovic, the prolific Serbian excelling in his debut season. Up until the hamstring injury sustained last month, Mitrovic had 33 goals in 35 matches.

Still, Hilal marched on. It helps, of course, when they have Yassine Bounou, Morocco’s hero goalkeeper from the Qatar World Cup. There’s Kalidou Koulibaly, a former Serie A defender of the year and African champion with Senegal.

In midfield, Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have starred in the principal divisions in England and Italy, respectively.

Filling the Neymar void, compatriot Malcom has been fantastic. The former Barcelona winger, top scorer in last season’s Russian top-flight, had six goals in his previous four matches, and 24 overall since joining last summer from Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Al Ain, as much as professional football teams can be, should have been, not scared, but at least wary.

Yet they steamrolled Hilal in a formidable first half on Wednesday. They strode out in front on six minutes, and by the 38th, were 3-0 up.

Soufiane Rahimi, the star man across two legs against Nassr in last month’s quarter-final, had three more goals, perched now as the 2023/24 Champions League lead scorer.

When Hilal pulled a goal back right after half-time, when for the first time the home fans sensed some fear setting in, Al Ain responded in an instant. Kaku converted the hosts’ third penalty of the night.

Again, Al Ain had to reach into the well. Salem Al Dawsari, the reigning Asian player of the year, made it 4-2 with 12 minutes remaining, sparking a Hilal onslaught.

But Khalid Essa, Khalid Al Hashemi, Kouame Autonne, Bandar Al Ahbabi, Erik, Park Young-woo and the rest stood firm. Al Ain had jammed the Hilal juggernaut.

No wonder manager Hernan Crespo lauded his players, bursting with pride. This was an Al Ain display for the ages.

The thing is, they need to do it all over again. As Crespo cautioned, the job remains only half done. Riyadh on Tuesday will provide the reverse of Wednesday in Al Ain: a partisan support will drive Hilal on, Al Ain having to play not only wounded serial winners, but the occasion. Another mighty performance, built once more on courage and conviction, is required.

The first leg, though, proved Al Ain shouldn't be bowed by the stature of any opponent. Yes, treat Hilal with the respect they so obviously merit. Then seize the opportunity of a similarly significant success for the UAE’s most decorated club.

Embrace the moment next week. As the banner asserted, fear none.

Updated: April 18, 2024, 1:44 PM