UAE club's must start on front foot

A good start is vital for the Pro League sides competing in the Asian Champions League.

Pro League sides must be quick off the mark if they hope to end UAE frustration in the continent's annual club competition, the league's chief executive said.

"The first two rounds are critical because that will set the shape of how clubs go for subsequent matches," Carlo Nohra said on the eve of the Asian Champions League (ACL), which begins today.

"If they don't get a good start, that's when clubs may decide not to give all their attention to the Champions League."

Al Jazira are home to Al Gharafa of Qatar at 7.25pm tonight and Al Wahda and Al Ain also open at home, tomorrow. Emirates play at Zob Ahan of Iran tomorrow.

The ACL has not been kind to the UAE for the past three years. No Pro League club, from 10, has survived the group stage in that time, and they collectively won only 11 of 58 matches.

Thus, Nohra was properly cautious when he said his "modest hopes" for UAE sides "are that at least one of them makes it to the knockout stages".

He added: "My more ambitious hope is that two can make it. But it will not be an easy passage."

Nohra might be heartened to learn that both Wahda and Jazira, the defending Pro League champions and leaders, respectively, say they will hold nothing back in the 2011 tournament.

Josef Hickersberger, the Wahda coach, conceded his club were focused on winning the Pro League a year ago, to the detriment of their ACL effort. "That is not the case this year."

Abel Braga, the coach of Jazira, yesterday said: "I not only want to make Jazira the best team in the country but the whole continent."

UAE clubs were prominent in the ACL from 2003 until 2007. Al Ain won the 2003 championship and were runners-up in 2005. Wahda and Sharjah reached the quarter-finals in 2004, as did Al Ain in 2006. Wahda went to the semi-finals in 2007.

Nohra traces Pro League struggles to 2009, when the Asian Football Confederation reallocated ACL berths. Top leagues were allowed to send four sides into the tournament; previously, no country was awarded more than two.

The four West Asia groups, for example, now each include one side from Saudi Arabia and Iran. Gone entirely are sides from weaker leagues in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria.

In Gharafa, Jazira meet a side who beat them twice in the group stage last year. "We have a poor record against Al Gharafa but we intend to change that this time," Braga said.

The Qatari side are led by Juninho, a former Brazil international who helped Olympic Lyon to seven consecutive French championships. Ibrahim Diaky and the Brazilians Bare and Ricardo Oliveiro are key attackers for Jazira.

Wahda play host tomorrow to Bunyodkor, the ambitious Uzbek side. The team from Tashkent signed 11 players over the weekend, including the Serbian forward Milos Trifunovic, recently of Red Star Belgrade. Wahda look to Ismail Matar and the Brazilian Fernando Baiano for scoring.

Al Ain, who won a qualifying match in Indonesia to join Group F on the East Asian side of the bracket, are led by the midfielder Omar Abdulrahman. FC Seoul's top players include the Uzbek midfielder Server Djeparov and Adilson, the Brazilian defender.

Emirates have a stern test away to Zob Ahan, the runners-up last year, who are led by the Brazilian forward Igor Castro.

Selected ACL Groups

Group A
Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
Al Gharafa (Qatar)
Al Jazira (UAE)
Sepahan (Iran)

Group C
Al Wahda (UAE)
Persepolis (Iran)
Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia)
Bunyodkor (Uzbekistan)

Group D
Al Rayyan (Qatar)
Emirates (UAE)
Zob Ahan (Iran)
Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia)

Group F
Hangzhou Greentown (China)
FC Seoul (South Korea)
Al Ain (UAE)
Nagoya Grampus (Japan)


Al Jazira v Al Gharafa, 7.25pm

Al Wahda v Bunyodkor, 8pm
Zob Ahan v Emirates, 7pm
Al Ain v FC Seoul, 7.05pm