Asian Champions League, Group C: Al Ain v Al Ahli, Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Tuesday, kick-off 7.35pm
Zoran Mamic says his Al Ain side will have to overcome one of the Gulf’s finest teams on Tuesday if they are to take a “big step” towards the Asian Champions League knockout stages.
The Garden City club, currently second in Group C, host leaders Al Ahli at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, with the Saudi Arabian champions currently two points better off at the halfway mark.
The two sides met on Matchday 3 in Jeddah, when Al Ain twice came from behind to secure a 2-2 draw. In fact, the 2003 champions have a superior recent record against Christian Gross’ men, winning both group fixtures last year on the way to the final.
Ahli, though, could clinch progression to the last 16 with victory, and should be extra motivated for the clash considering they have all but conceded their Saudi Pro League title to domestic rivals Al Hilal.
Mamic understands the task that awaits Al Ain perhaps more than most, though, given he spent seven months at Riyadh’s Al Nassr before his move to the UAE earlier this year.
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“For me, Ahli are the best team in Saudi Arabia,” Mamic said. “At in the moment, they are not in first place in the league, but I like this team. And also we cannot forget they have one of the best coaches.
“We have a game against one of the best teams in this region and so we expect a very, very difficult match. It is important for both teams because with three points we can make a big step to the next round. We know each other very, very well — there are no secrets in both teams.
“I’m sure my team will make a good match. Of course, we have a plan how we play against them. But it’s important that it happens on the pitch and is not just what we talk about. I’m sure the players know this.”
Al Ain will be without a number of players for the visit of Ahli, including defender Mohammed Ahmed and midfielder Amer Abdulrahman, who are both injured, while Saudi striker Nasser Al Shamrani has been granted compassionate leave following the death of his father.
Elsewhere, UAE champions Al Ahli travel to Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun knowing victory would push them closer to making the knockouts for only a second time. The 2015 finalists sit second in Group A, one place above debutants Taawoun on goal difference and two points off top spot, currently occupied by Iran’s Esteghlal.
Last month, Ahli and Taawoun played out a lacklustre goalless draw in Dubai, and the latter have since replaced manager Constantin Galca with former coach Jose Gomes. However, Ahli manager Cosmin Olaroiu has problems of his own, with injuries to key men, such as midfielder Majed Hassan, and the uncertainty surrounding the future of UAE national team striker Ahmed Khalil. Ahli, meanwhile, have won only three of their past 23 Champions League away matches.
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