On Sunday, Al Ain concluded the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League hoisting aloft the trophy having sealed a first top-flight title in three years with one round to spare. We look at how they secured the crown, and what is still to come for the Garden City club.
Filling the Gyan void … finally
With the search for an appropriate replacement for Asamoah Gyan moving into its third year, Al Ain plumped last summer for Marcus Berg, signing him from Greek side Panathinaikos. Berg has gone on to prove a worthy successor: his four-goal haul against Al Dhafra on Sunday took his league tally to 25 goals in 21 appearances, lifting his total output to 35 goals in 34 outings across all competitions.
He concluded the league campaign not only with a winner’s medal, but the Golden Boot, too. What is more, Berg registered 10 assists – more than any other player this season. An obvious focal point to the team, he is not confined to dominating domestically. Currently Berg sits joint-top of the scoring charts in the Asian Champions League.
Winter signings prove good business
While Berg was an astute acquisition last summer, Al Ain dipped into the transfer market again in January – and again they chose wisely. Trailing Al Wasl at the halfway stage in the league, and with the Champions League and President’s Cup to come, the club recognised the need to strengthen.
So in came Ahmed Khalil, the UAE striker who wanted out of Al Jazira, and Hussein El Shahat, the Egyptian attacking midfielder on loan from Misr El Makkasa. The latter, in particular, has been a revelation. In 18 matches in all, El Shahat has scored 11 times and registered 13 assists, a remarkable input in such a short period. Last month, he debuted for the Egypt national team. Sensibly, Al Ain have since tied him to a three-year contract.
Gifted Yaslam grows in stature
Rayan Yaslam was first considered talented enough for the Al Ain first team by Cosmin Olaroiu. Zlatko Dalic thought likewise, with the young Emirati given a few opportunities to showcase his ability. However, under Zoran Mamic this season, Yaslam has blossomed.
The diminutive midfielder has been entrusted by his manager in the most important matches, and has contributed more minutes on the pitch (2297) to captain Omar Abdulrahman (2119).
Stationed in central midfield, often the technically proficient Yaslam provides cover for the team’s fluid attack. Abdulrahman, not near his best this season, has endorsed his teammate for the league’s Emirati-of-the-year award. Suitably, Yaslam's performances for club have led to a call-up for his country. At 23, the future is bright.
Traditional rivals’ struggle
Undeniably, Al Ain have been the league's best team this season. They have far outscored the division's other 11 sides (65 goals) and boast the second-best defence (23 conceded). They clinched the title with one round to spare, while losing a solitary match all season.
For that, the players should be proud; Mamic, too, deserves a lot of credit. However, Al Ain’s path to the crown was helped somewhat by the ongoing problems at champions Al Jazira and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, who finished fifth and seventh, respectively.
Wasl, meanwhile, were victims of their relatively modest squad – their all-Brazilian attack is among the best in the league – and second-placed Al Wahda lost steam following defeat in last month's crucial encounter with Al Ain. The champions, though, excelled when needing it most.
Keeping the good times rolling
Al Ain’s title coronation marked the conclusion of a fine league campaign. A first top-flight success in three years, and 13th in all, it underlined their position as the country’s most decorated club. Yet there remains much to play for.
On Thursday, they contest the President’s Cup final at Zayed Sports City against Al Wasl, keen no doubt to atone for their penalty-shootout defeat two years ago to Jazira. Victory would also clinch a first league-and-President’s-Cup double in the club’s history.
Then Al Ain face Qatar's Al Duhail in the Asian Champions League last 16, with the matches taking place on May 8 and May 15. Al Ain, who most likely have the Fifa Club World Cup to come later this year, will want to enter the summer with success secured in all three competitions.