Al Ain beat Ittihad to put one foot in ACL semis

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Riding the challenge: Omar Abdulrahman (c) was superb for Al Ain at the Hazza Bin Zayed stadium.

Al Ain are within touching distance of a first AFC Champions League semi-final in nine years, as an unstoppable second-half display saw goals from Ismail Ahmed and Asamoah Gyan condemn Al Ittihad to a 2-0 quarter-final, first-leg defeat.

Months of detailed pre-season work came to fruition for the Boss at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, with the majestic Omar Abdulrahman inspiring an onslaught their Saudi opponents had no answer for.

A tense opening was soon forgotten after the break, as dominant centre-back Ismail Ahmed lost his marker to sidefoot a low Jires Kembo Ekoko cross home after 48 minutes.

A potentially deciding advantage ahead of next Tuesday's return leg was then secured in eye-catching fashion, Omar Abdulrahman's crafting the most delicate of lofted balls, which Gyan dispatched into the bottom corner.

A pre-match boost for the hosts was provided by Didier Ya Konan's absence, the former Hannover forward and star Ittihad recruit failing to recover from the illness that forced him out of his new side's pair of Saudi Professional League victories.

The UAE had waited seven years for a side to make the last eight of the AFC and the packed Hazza bin Zayed – boosted by a stand full of boisterous Saudi supporters – crackled with noise, providing the perfect atmosphere for such a pivotal clash.

Much is expected of the Boss' new look attack, with Miroslav Stoch, Omar Abdulrahman and Jires Kembo Ekoko buzzing behind lone striker Gyan.

Flashes of what is to come in the season ahead appeared, two Stoch crosses almost being converted by Gyan.

The crowd barely had time to return to their seats after the interval before they were lifted off their feet by the colossal Ahmed’s fine finish.

Al Ain were on fire, with the inspired Omar Abdulrahman – predictably – at the heart of everything.

He and Gyan were on another wavelength to the other 20 players on the pitch.

And an outstanding 11th ACL goal of the competition for Gyan was soon to follow, with the assist something to behold.

Omar Abdulrahman looked up from 25 yards and conjured a pass few would even imagine. His scooped through ball saw Gyan race clear and ripple the back of the net.

Omar Abdulrahman was revelling in the last-eight spotlight, the Hazza providing a fitting stage for a talent that continues to shine, once again, under Dalic's tutelage.

Al Ain possess a terrible record in Saudi Arabia, a group-stage defeat in the Croatian's first match in charge against Ittihad the seventh in the club's ACL history there.

On tonight’s evidence, Ittihad look on course to be swept aside as Al Ain's push to become the Boss of Asia for the first time since 2003 continues.

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Sport360° view: Al Ain look good to end UAE's awful CL record

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Exciting times: Al Ain could make history if they keep progressing the AFC Champions League.

Months of toil, sweat and dedication have led up to this point. From the mom-ent the unstoppable Asamoah Gyan swept Al Jazira away in the AFC Champions League round of 16, Al Ain knew they were set for a date with destiny in August.

The magnificent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium provides a fitting setting for tonight’s quarter-final first leg meeting with Saudi Arabians Al Ittihad. Every hard yard ran during the early return to pre-season will seem worthwhile once the home team heads out into the neon purple stadium.

The UAE have long been underachievers in the competition. As the national team has soared up the FIFA rankings, impressed the world at the 2012 London Olympics and claimed the 2013 Gulf Cup, the Arabian Gulf League competitors have barely made a dent in Asia’s elite club tournament since Al Wahda were semi-finalists seven long years ago. 

That record is to be soon consigned to the past, according to coach Zlatko Dalic. The Croatian has lifted Al Ain from the lows of their wretched AGL title defence since being appointed in March, his collegiate approach bringing the best out of a once fractious bunch. May’s President’s Cup final success against Al Ahli was just reward for the upswing in form. 

The revival has continued in the summer, with the club’s hierarchy adding pace and energy to the mix during an adroit transfer campaign. Experienced pair Mirel Radoi and Alex Brosque were sacrificed. In their place comes South Korea tyro Lee Myung-Joo, Slovakia trickster Miroslav Stoch, emerging UAE star Mohammed Fawzi and the promising Rashed Essa.

The smartest bit of business appears to have been the decision to recall forward Jires Kembo Ekoko from a loan spell with 
Qatari’s El Jaish. With rapid acceleration and guile in abundance, the former France youth international has been a regular scorer during training camps in Italy and Austria.

All the new additions share youth, speed and a hunger to carry on the Boss’ long history of success. For dreams of a repeat of 2003’s AFC win to become real, however, a stern test will have to be passed.

Ittihad went unbeaten in the club’s two group stage meetings, ruining Dalic’s Boss debut with a 2-1 defeat and drawing 1-1 at the Hazza bin Zayed. The Jeddah-based outfit only stumbled to seventh place in last season’s Saudi Professional League but have refocused during the summer break.

Striker Didier Ya Konan provi-ded a regular threat in the Bundesliga, Queens Park Rangers loanee Samba Diakite has already scored for the club in competitive action, Marquinho comes from Serie A runners-up Roma and defender Mohammad Al Dumeiri has excelled for Jordan.

An inspirational move has also seen legendary midfielder Mohammed Noor brought back in. And with two-times AFC champions Ittihad having already chalked up two league wins, they may also be the more match sharp with the AGL kick off still nearly a month away.

But Al Ain have the quality and organisation to make the last four for the first time since 2006 – especially with the whole of UAE football behind them.

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UAE is behind Al Ain as they hunt for AFC Champions League semi-final spot

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Asian ambitions: Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic (r) speaks to the media.

Coach Zlatko Dalic has revealed Al Ain “will give everything” to repay the support the club has received from the entire UAE in their quest to beat Al Ittihad in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.

No side from the UAE has managed to make the last-four of the competition since Al Wahda were edged out by Iranians Sepahan in 2007. That was also the last time a local team had progressed to the last-eight, prior to the Boss beating Al Jazira 4-2 on aggregate in May’s round of 16 encounter.

Al Ain will be cheered on by supporters from across the UAE in tonight’s first leg, with Arabian Gulf League competitors Jazira, Al Nasr, Al Wasl, Al Shabab and Sharjah all confirming on Twitter they will be temporarily casting aside their rivalries by transporting fans to the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium for the special occasion.

Croatian Dalic expressed his gratitude for the gesture, insisting the players were ready to give their all against the Saudi Arabians.

“Being in the last eight teams in Asia, I know, is a big result,” the 47-year-old said. “It is very good for everybody, for every team.

“Now, we are representing our country, the whole Emirates and not just Al Ain.

“We will give everything, for all people. Not only people from Al Ain, but for the whole country. 

“To make the semi-final will be a big, big result for everyone. Not only just for me, my team and our fans but everyone in the country.

“Everybody will be behind us. It will not be easy, I expect a good result and good game.

“I thank everyone for their support. Inshallah, we are in a good place at the moment and we hope to continue.”

The support has even come from His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who declared the 2003 AFC winners were “capable of bringing back past glories” in the tournament following their President’s Cup triumph against Al Ahli at the end of last season.

Goalkeeper Khalid Essa was honoured by His Highness’ words and declared the entire squad were inspired to make them real.

The UAE international said: “Still in all the players heads and ears are the words from His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan that we should try to do our best to repeat what the team did in 2003.

“Inshallah, we are trying to do the same. It is not easy, but everyone in the club respects what His Highness said and we will do our best to get there.”

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