As part of Ali Khaled's 2015 Asian Champions League preview ahead of Tuesday night's start to group play, he breaks down the chances of the two remaining Arabian Gulf League clubs, Al Ain and Al Ahli, as well as the other challengers for Asia's highest club honour. Below, Ali looks at Al Ain.
Can Al Ain reap benefits of a settled Omar?
Speculation over Omar Abdulrahman’s future is settled after the club’s star signed a contract through the 2017/18 season. The 23-year-old playmaker, who starred at the recent Asian Cup, can concentrate on transferring his excellent form in Australia to the continent’s premier club tournament.
Will Asamoah Gyan recover from Ghana heartbreak?
The competition’s top scorer last year suffered more African Cup of Nations disappointment with his country, losing a dramatic final to the Ivory Coast on penalties. His club will need him to rediscover his form from last season’s Champions League, when he led all scorers with 12 goals, if they are to make another successful run.
Can Al Ain compete on several different fronts?
While domestic rivals Al Jazira, Al Shabab and Al Wahda can concentrate on the Arabian Gulf League, Al Ain will have to split their focus on two titles they are desperate to win. Last year, that proved too much for manager Zlatko Dalic’s squad.
Can Dalic’s defence withstand the continent’s best?
In last year’s competition, the team’s defence, which had struggled all season, collapsed in the first leg of the semi-final against Al Hilal. But with the central pairing of Mohaned Salem and Ismail Ahmed, if available, Al Ain have the Arabian Gulf League’s best defence this season and can expect to be tighter in the back this time round.
Can Al Ain make the most of their home comforts?
The Garden City club have a chance to get off to a fast start when they host Al Shabab of Riyadh. The club now have had the benefit of starting a new season at the magnificent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, and a big crowd Tuesday night could help them open with a victory, a major step towards progress to the round of 16.
Key player: Miroslav Stoch, the flying winger
The young Slovak winger was one of Al Ain’s best players in their march to the semi-finals last year, especially in the knockout stages. With Gyan and Abdulrahman often the main preoccupation of opposition defences, he could be a match-winner yet again.
With the memory of last season’s run to the semi-finals still painfully fresh, Al Ain should have enough experience and strength in depth to negotiate this group comfortably, provided their best players avoid injury and exhaustion. The other spot is up for grabs. Al Shabab have underperformed domestically this season and lie in fifth position in the Saudi League. Pakhtakor, despite underperforming in 2013 and not taking part in this competition last year, will see this as a big chance to progress. Any team leading the Iranian domestic league deserves to be taken seriously, but a lack of experience at this level should see Naft Tehran miss out on progress to the knockout stages.
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