AL AIN // Fahad Ali, the former UAE captain who led Al Ain to victory in the first Asian Champions League (ACL) in 2003, says Emirati players are still getting used to life as professionals and that is hindering their performances, both domestically and in continental competition. "They have been given professional contracts when the game turned professional last season and for them it is all about money at the moment," said Ali. "These are players with their own lifestyles and they are finding it hard to adjust.
"At the moment they are not fully focused on what they are expected to do. The key element of being a professional player has not sunk into them. And that has harmed their game and resulted in poor performances in both the Pro League and the ACL." Ali, who now works as one of the assistants to Srecko Katanec, the national coach, and a television pundit since his retirement from the game in 2008, feels Al Ain and Al Jazira still have a chance to go beyond the group stage.
Al Ain got their first points in the competition with a 0-0 away result with the Iranian club Sepahan in their last game and tonight they host the Group C table toppers Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia. The UAE clubs got off to the worst possible start with all four representatives in the continental championship suffering first-round defeats. But Ali said it was more to do with the approach than the level of play.
"The other teams have got their focus on winning the Asian title as a bigger achievement while the Emirati clubs are more focused on winning the domestic competitions. "The Emirati players are no less talented than the others in the ACL and the Emirati clubs have got the capacity to sign up good players. The Pro League has some really good players like Jorge Valdivia and Marcio Emerson for Al Ain, Ricardo Oliveira and Rafael Sobis [Al Jazira], Fernando Baiano and Pinga [Al Wahda].
"So I don't think there is a dearth in good players. It is just that the Emirati players are not focused enough for the job in the ACL. "Having said that, I still feel Al Ain and Al Jazira can go beyond the group stage." Al Ain are expected to be at full strength with Emerson, their Brazilian forward, and Ismail Ahmed, the Emirati defender, both fully recovered from injuries. Toninho Cerezo's team slipped further back in the Pro League title race after a 2-1 home defeat to Al Dhafra last week, which left them eight points behind the leaders Wahda in third place.
Cerezo said Emerson's presence will strengthen his attacking options with Valdivia returning to his usual role in midfield. "What we discuss is only on paper," said Cerezo. "The important thing at the end is the result on the pitch. This is a game we must win if we fancy our chances of staying in the competition [beyond the group stage]. I know this opponent well and the coach [Jaime Pacheco, the former Portugal international], both as a player and manager. But we will settle our issues on the pitch."
The Saudi side arrive on the back of a 3-1 away win over the Uzbeks Pakhtakor and Pacheco said he was confident his men can overcome any opponent. He said: "We drew at home and won away. And I wouldn't mind again in winning this away game and holding Al Ain to a draw in Riyadh. We want to stay at the top of the group and a win can take our tally to seven." @Email:email@example.com