Al Ain presented a golden opportunity to win a second Asian Champions League title
Another Asian Champions League away-day success for Al Ain, another impressive display of their resolve.
Tuesday’s hard-fought, quarter-final second-leg victory against Lokomotiv, against the Uzbek league leaders in Uzbekistan, secured a 1-0 aggregate win and sealed progression to a second Champions League semi-final in three years. Suddenly, a third showpiece appearance, and a first final since 2005, seems well within reach.
Al Ain fully deserve to continue their quest. They may be a superior side to Lokomotiv, but the match in Tashkent represented a serious examination of their credentials. There, they faced a team 20 rounds into the Uzbek top-flight season, a team five points clear at the summit, a team unbeaten this year in the league and on the continent. Lokomotiv were primed for Al Ain.
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In contrast, the Garden City side had only just embarked on their 2016/17 season and played just three competitive fixtures since the close of the last campaign. They arrived on the back of last week’s 5-1 thumping by rivals Al Ahli in the Arabian Gulf Cup, while their Arabian Gulf League bid does not begin until Sunday.
Al Ain’s preseason was rife with problems: cancelled friendlies, absent stars, a lack of time on the training pitch to plan and prepare for their Champions League chase. The resumption of qualification for the 2018 World Cup robbed the club of seven UAE internationals for the majority of the summer, allowed manager Zlatko Dalic approximately two weeks with his full squad.
Against Lokomotiv, five of Al Ain’s starting XI had played almost every minute of the UAE’s demanding double-header with Japan and Australia. Mohammed Ahmed, meanwhile, was injured in the latter, and with Mohammed Fayez suspended, Al Ain were forced into using both reserve full-backs in Tashkent.
Little wonder the pressure had been building on Dalic. Last Wednesday’s embarrassment against Ahli only increased the heat, the fire further fuelled by the backdrop of Asamoah Gyan’s loan move to the Dubai club.
Yet Al Ain dug deep, determined that they would still find a way through. It was a commendably professional performance on Tuesday: dogged and diligent with just enough quality to see off Lokomotiv. They managed the game expertly, limited their opponents to little until goalkeeper Khalid Essa and defender Mohanad Salem came to the fore in the dying stages. Omar Abdulrahman, wearing the captain’s armband, even collected a booking for time-wasting in the first half.
When the whistle went for half time, and Lokomotiv disappeared to regroup, Abdulrahman led his teammates to the centre circle, where they huddled and hatched a plan to ensure they held on to their lead. In the end, it proved successful. Clearly, Al Ain were dead set on seizing a semi-final spot.
Caio struck the decisive blow and frequently flickered, still rough around the edges but still suggesting that, with time, he can become a major player for his new club. He joined Al Ain in July.
Again, Douglas frustrated up front and Amer Abdulrahman remains some way off his best, but Al Ain warranted the win, even merited that moment late on when Lokomotiv hit the woodwork. Just like against Iran’s Zobahan in the last round, they triumphed away after a disappointing draw at home, exhibited their ruthless streak, their ability to withstand the strain and rise to the challenge.
Now, the 2003 Asian champions have a genuine shot at the 2016 title, at a second continental crown for the club and for the country. El Jaish, who defeated them twice in the group stage, are Al Ain’s most likely opponents in the semis, the team Dalic previously said he wanted to face again, to correct old mistakes, to avenge past results.
Undoubtedly, Al Ain possess the resources to do that. It represents a golden opportunity to move within one opponent of another Champions League success. Lokomotiv negotiated, Al Ain must grasp it.
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Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM