UAE clubs should have realistic expectations for Asian Champions League after recent success

Al Ain, Nasr, Jazira. Three clubs with aspirations of qualification and beyond, yet three clubs who, given their current state, should perhaps concentrate solely on progressing from their respective pools, writes John McAuley.

Al Ain qualified for the 2016 Asian Champions League because they were the 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League champions. Satish Kumar / The National
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Emboldened by Al Ahli last year, and even Al Ain before that, the UAE’s representatives enter the 2016 Asian Champions League this week with ambitions of an extended run across the continent.

Al Ain, Al Nasr, Al Jazira. Three sides embarking on the group stages, three sides seeking to emulate and then improve upon the Ahli of 2015, or the Al Ain of 2014.

One runners-up as recently as three months ago, the other semi-finalists the previous season; each helping UAE clubs believe that little bit more, each making the impossible feel possible.

For Emirati teams, prolonged passages through Asia’s premier club competition had in recent times proved elusive, the route rocky, the campaign curtailed by a stumble along the groups, or at best concluded come the first knockout round.

Read more: Al Ain, Al Jazira and Al Nasr in Asian Champions League – Everything you need to know

The statistics did not make for pleasant reading. Between 2008 and 2013, beginning as UAE football entered its professional era, only three clubs from the Emirates – Al Jazira, Baniyas and Al Shabab – survived beyond the group stages. All three bowed out at the very next hurdle.

Then Al Ain and Jazira clashed in the last 16 of the 2014 tournament, with Al Ain striding past the quarter-finals and into the semis.

There, they exited, beaten and bruised, by Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal. But progress had been made.

Then last year, Al Ain again advanced from the group, again as group winners, again accompanied by a compatriot. For Ahli, this was a first taste of the knockout stages at the sixth attempt, the Dubai club having narrowly escaped their group in the last few minutes of the last round of fixtures. After defeating Al Ain in the next round, Ahli lasted all the way to the final.

So what appeared infinitely elusive now seems wholly attainable. Finally, UAE clubs can look forward to the Asian Champions League, no longer tormented by excursions to Iran, Uzbekistan or Saudi, no longer cowed by the expectation of failure.

But what of the 2016 crew? Al Ain, Nasr, Jazira. Three clubs with aspirations of qualification and beyond, yet three clubs who, given their current state, should perhaps concentrate solely on progressing from their respective pools. No doubt that forms their primary objective.

At the moment, the trio cannot claim to be of vintage stock: Al Ain have new foreign players still settling; Nasr lack an obvious goalscoring threat; Jazira have only just begun to climb from a domestic malaise.

Thus getting through the groups will be – it must be – the sole target. Overcome that, and then the two-legged last-16 tie, and a whole raft of possibilities opens. Come summer, clubs can display more ambition, recruit more aggressively.

Requiring a striker of genuine quality last July, Ahli signed Rodrigo Lima, whose goals fired his side to the final against Guangzhou Evergrande. He remains one of the continent’s finest; it remains especially regrettable that his team did not qualify for this year’s tournament. Undeniably, Ahli would offer the UAE’s best hope of a repeat.

However, Ahli’s compatriots are right to feel emboldened by what the Dubai club achieved in 2015. Even if 2016, initially at least, does not promise as much.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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