Refocused Al Ain look imperious amid rise to Arabian Gulf League summit

Since the loss in Saudi Arabia that spelled their doom in the Asian Champions League, the Garden City club have taken the Arabian Gulf League by storm

Miroslav Stoch, right, was one of four foreign players on the scoresheet for Al Ain as they defeated Sharjah 4-1 on December 18, 2014, at the Hazza bin Zayed stadium in Al Ain. Anas Kanni / Al Ittihad
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For teams all across the Arabian Gulf League, the sound is unmistakable.

Drums, drums in the deep. Al Ain are coming.

The Al Ain of last season, who focused on the Asian Champions League while drifting well off the pace at home, is a distant memory. The chances of them finishing 21 points off the pace again are, at best, slim.

This Al Ain look far more ominous. Their 4-1 home win over Sharjah last night was the latest in a series of impressive performances that included swatting aside the likes of Al Wahda, who until recently topped the AGL table, and a resurgent Baniyas.

Al Ain are unbeaten in their past eight league matches. Since a 3-0 loss against Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia that all but sealed their exit from the ACL, the Garden City club have played 12 AGL matches, winning nine, drawing two and losing one – the latter a 4-3 defeat at Al Jazira just after the second leg against Hilal.

Last night’s victory provided an example of what is both so surprising and, for the rest of the league, so unnerving about Al Ain’s dominant form. They have surged to the top of the table without breaking that much of a sweat and without Omar Abdulrahman, their talisman and playmaker.

Abdulrahman has not played for the club since returning from international duty at the Gulf Cup of Nations. While UAE coach Mahdi Ahli has described him as "fine" and included him in his provisional squad for next month's Asian Cup, the midfielder will not turn out in Al Ain colours again until late January at the earliest.

In his absence, the rest of the Al Ain squad have picked up the slack. Asamoah Gyan is back to his predatory best, scoring six goals in his past five AGL matches and quickly chipping away at Jazira striker Mirko Vucinic’s Golden Boot lead.

Gyan opened the scoring against Sharjah, heading in a corner kick by Mohammed Abdulrahman, who looked at ease in midfield in his namesake’s absence. Miroslav Stoch and Lee Myung-joo also scored, as did Jires Kembo-Ekoko. The latter came on for Diaky Ibrahim, who has grown into the role of support striker.

Wanderley’s 57th-minute equaliser for Sharjah – a 30-yard rocket bound for the end-of-season highlight reel – ended up being a spectacular consolation.

Al Ain top the table with a game in hand, though Jazira can overhaul them should they beat Al Wasl on Friday. The concern is who of the other contenders for Al Ahli’s crown can match Al Ain’s new pace.

Wahda have fallen to earth with a thud after Al Ain ended their 20-match unbeaten run in the AGL. Jazira, entertaining as they are, have chronic deficiencies at the back that coach Eric Gerets has said will not be alleviated by a bunch of new signings. Injuries and internal turmoil have left champions Ahli stuck in mid-table.

Al Shabab may yet have a say in the title race. They showed plenty of fight in winning 2-1 at Al Dhafra yesterday, playing 80 minutes with 10 men after leading scorer Henrique Luvannor was sent off. Essa Mohammed’s free kick staked Shabab to an early lead, with Carlos Villanueva scoring an 85th-minute winner after Makhete Diop had equalised for the hosts.

There may yet be more twists in the tale of this season with only half the fixtures played. For now, though, the rest of the AGL must fall back on an old habit – looking up at Al Ain.

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