AL AIN // Jorge Valdivia, the Al Ain captain, has appealed for supporters to get behind the side when they return to Asian Champions League (ACL) action tonight after an absence of two years. Al Ain, who play the Uzbek club Pakhtakor at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium (KO 7.20pm), won the first staging of the tournament in 2003 under the charismatic Frenchman Bruno Metsu and were runners-up in 2005, but they have failed to qualify for the group stages for the last two seasons.
"We need the support of our fans," said the Chile midfielder. "We as players give our best on the pitch. When we look at the stands, we must get inspired. As the captain, I appeal for them to come and fill the stadium. "We watched this competition last year and now we are back, and we must make the best use of it. This team has all that is required to become a champion unit, but we would like to focus on the first game. To take one game at a time is the right thing to do."
Marcio Emerson, the Brazilian forward, is a doubt but one confirmed absentee is Salem Abdulla, the Emirati midfielder, after he was injured in last week's 1-0 loss to Al Jazira in the Pro League. Toninho Cerezo may give a debut to new recruit Lee Ho with the Brazilian coach saying the South Korean had been brought in specifically to help them do well in the Asian competition. "He is our new player signed in the second half of the season with the ACL in mind," said Cerezo. "He has spent more than a month with us and fits in well."
He added: "We are happy to play the first game at home, which gives us a little advantage because we will know the team better when we play away." Darko Markovic, Pakhtakor's Montenegro midfielder, is worried his side will be lacking match fitness as the Uzbek league has yet to start. "It was different last year, we came after playing a lot of competitive matches," he said. "We faced Al Ahli in Dubai and won 2-1, we hope to take a similar path. We haven't played that many games this time but have prepared well, including a two-week camp in Sharjah."
Sepahan, of Iran, and the Saudi side Al Shabab are the other two teams in Group C and also meet tonight. Al Ahli will start their AFC Champions League campaign against Mes Kerman in Iran tonight, determined to compensate for their domestic struggles. Ahli, the Pro League champions, have been in a flux since winning the title last year and have been through three coaches already this season before the Dutchman Henk ten Cate took over the reins last month.
The new coach has made the ACL his top priority, hoping success on the continent will lead to better fortunes at home. "This tournament is like a fresh start for us," said Ten Cate, who won the European equivalent with Barcelona in 2006 as Frank Rijkaard's right-hand man. "We can forget about the Pro League and the past, and just look ahead. That is what we, the coaching staff and management, have been trying to do as we prepare for this game. We just want the players to forget about the Pro League and focus on Asia.
"So we are going to enter this game with a new spirit and a great desire to achieve a positive result. "A good start will really put us on the way to the round of 16, which is our first target in the tournament. Of course, we know it is not going to be easy, but this tournament offers the players an opportunity to prove their critics wrong, and I am sure they are determined to grab it." While Ahli have been struggling in the Pro League, their opponents have been faring even worse in the Iranian League, languishing 16th in the 18-team league.