Al Ain find the right balance in attack and other keys to Arabian Gulf League title triumph

Matt Jones 21/04/2018
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Marcus Berg netted a hat-trick for Al Ain.

Al Ain tightened their grip on the title of most successful league team in UAE football history, securing a 13th top-flight crown on Saturday with a 4-0 thrashing of rivals Al Nasr.

It might extend their overall record to six more titles than both Al Wasl and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club) who have seven apiece, but it is a first league triumph in three seasons and a maiden title since 2015’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup.

Here, we take a closer look at how they won it.

SORTING OUT THE ATTACK

For too many years, the Boss have been brilliant at the back but lacked the personnel up front to carry them to a league title. While their goalkeeper and defence forms the foundation of the back five at international level, in attack they have looked fragile and lacking creativity.

Douglas, Danilo Asprilla, Emmanuel Emenike and Nasser Al Shamrani have all tried and failed to fill the huge goalscoring void left by the prolific Asamoah Gyan. But in Swedish spearhead Marcus Berg, they have found a focal point with which to pierce significant holes in any defence.

The former Panathinaikos and Hamburg man’s hat-trick here saw him surge to the top of the AGL scoring charts with 21 goals and 29 in total during a debut campaign which ends with a trip to Russia to carry his country’s hopes at this summer’s World Cup.

Brazilian winger Caio has caused havoc down both flanks to reiterate his brilliance – of which glimpses were shown in a debut 2016/17 campaign. But the spark has been the elusive Egyptian Hussein El Shahat, who has sprinkled a smattering of stardust on this team since his January arrival.

His presence has been the catalyst that’s driven Al Ain to a 13th title, with his performances earning him a call-up from Pharaohs coach Hector Cuper for March’s training camp and possibly a place on the plane to Russia.

Hussein El Shahat (l) has been a revelation since his January arrival.

Hussein El Shahat (l) has been a revelation since his January arrival.

CONSISTENCY IS KEY

The table doesn’t lie, you very rarely win a league played over a long period via luck or with a few good performances – which can easily happen in a cup run.

Zoran Mamic’s men have been the best team in the Emirates this season, despite the admirable challenge of Al Wahda and diminishing one from Al Wasl. One defeat in 21 games speaks volumes to the Boss’ consistency, which has been a running theme throughout their season.

Wasl might well be the most exciting attacking team in the AGL and surged into contention early on following a lightning start which saw them go unbeaten in their first 11 games and lose just once in their opening 14.

After showing tremendous promise in Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s debut season a year ago, it seemed the Cheetahs would chase down a maiden league title in 11 long seasons following a blistering start – spearheaded by brilliant Brazilian talisman Fabio De Lima.

But they have capitulated since Christmas – losing five of their last 10 to fall drastically out of contention. They are even in danger of finishing outside the automatic places for AFC Champions League qualification, with the Blue Wave on their coat-tails.

Pragmatic but less powerful Wahda have stayed the course much longer, but the Boss have been simply breathtaking.

Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has overseen a more consistent Al Ain this season.

Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has overseen a more consistent Al Ain this season.

FINDING A WAY TO WIN

Al Ain have suffered from having a soft underbelly in recent seasons – their 2012/13 title triumph was followed by a miserable title defence which saw them finish a dismal sixth the following season.

They finished a distant fourth last term and there were signs early on this season that they remained fragile – they surrendered the lead twice to draw 2-2 with early pacesetters Wasl on the opening day of the season. Leads of 3-1 and 2-0 were thrown away against Sharjah (3-3) and champions Al Jazira (2-2) in the space of three games in October and November as the wheels threatened to come off their title bid.

But they’ve developed a backbone, and have got big results against their rivals, beating the Clarets and the Blue Wave home and away and taking four points off both the Cheetahs and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai. All of this has been overseen without their talisman Omar Abdulrahman being on top form.

Even when you felt a maiden defeat – the 3-1 loss to Sharjah at the end of February – might have derailed them, they answered emphatically in their next game, thrashing second-placed Wahda 6-2. Again they could have wilted after Balasz Dzsudzsak levelled the game when Al Ain had gone 2-0 up. But four goals in the final 18 minutes set up a four-game winning run which carried them all the way to a milestone title.

Al Ain have returned to winning ways despite talisman Omar Abdulrahman being far from his best.

Al Ain have returned to winning ways despite talisman Omar Abdulrahman being far from his best.

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Ahmed Barman not interested in personal success as Al Ain go in search of Arabian Gulf League title

Matt Jones 20/04/2018
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Ahmed Barman insists personal accolades do not interest him as much as success with AL Ain.

Ahmed Barman insists personal glory does not concern him, only collective success with his team-mates as Al Ain go in search of a record-extending 13th UAE top-flight crown.

A first Arabian Gulf League title in three years will belong to the Boss on Saturday if they defeat resurgent Al Nasr in Dubai.

UAE international Barman, 24, has been an almost ever-present for Zoran Mamic’s side in a near flawless campaign that has seen them lose just once in 20 league games.

Barman has played 18 of those games in the heart of Al Ain’s midfield, but he has been overlooked for the end of season AGL awards and does not feature on the 10-man shortlist for the Best Emirati Player – which does include team-mates Rayan Yaslam, Omar Abdulrahman, Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem.

But ahead of a pivotal clash with the fourth-placed Blue Wave who have lost just one league game since Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic returned for a second stint in January, Barman says he is more interested on lifting the league title as opposed to individual accolades.

“I think there are evaluation committees better to ask this question,” said Barman when asked in the pre-match press conference whether he was irked by not being nominated for the Best Emirati Player award.

“The truth is every player wishes to enter the competition for the end of season awards, but I am satisfied and happy at the level I am at with my team, thanks to the guidance of the coach, and all I want is to help my fellow players and compete for the championship.

“I am very happy to compete for Al Ain for the league prizes and any personal award would come second compared to being crowned a league title winner with the club.”

Mamic, meanwhile, insists he won’t be thinking at all of winning the title on Saturday.

“I do not think at all about the celebrations as much as our focus on providing the level which leads us to win the game,” said the Croatian.

Despite the carrot of winning a first major title of his tenure and a maiden trophy since the 2015 Arabian Gulf Super Cup dangling in front of him, Mamic knows his side face a tricky task, with Nasr aiming to climb into the coveted third automatic AFC Champions League slot with victory.

“We are well aware our next game against Al Nasr will not be easy, especially since they have been playing at a high level in their last seven league games. I think that if they started the season at the same level they would be on top of the table.”

Barman reiterated the threat posed by the Blue Wave and their coach Ivanovic, who replaced former Italy manager Cesare Prandelli – who had ironically been brought in to replace him in October 2016 – at the beginning of the year.

Ivan Jovanovic has returned to Al Nasr and had a huge effect on the club.

Ivan Jovanovic has returned to Al Nasr and had a huge effect on the club.

“The opponents have been good for the past seven rounds, but we are required to be strong enough to achieve the best result with respect to our ambitions, regardless of the pressures we face,” added Barman.

“We are certainly going to the opposing team’s stadium with the ambition of winning and every game we consider as a final. We seek to show our best and hope to perform in line with our personal ambitions and satisfy the fans of the club.”

Jovanovic said he expects a great game between the two rivals, with both having huge motivation for victory.

“Without a doubt there will be a strong and enjoyable match for the two teams as well as the fans, as each team has a lot of motivation to win,” said the 55-year-old.

“We will enter the game to win to maintain third place qualify for the AFC Champions League.”

Nasr were usurped of third-place on Friday following Bur Dubai rivals Al Wasl’s 2-0 win over Hatta.

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Hussein El Shahat (c) and Marcus Berg (r) both scored for Al Ain at Al Rayyan.

Al Ain boss Zoran Mamic has warned his side they “have not achieved anything” yet as they look to successfully complete the second part of a pivotal week by adding the Arabian Gulf League’s crown to progression in the 2018 AFC Champions League.

The Boss emphatically made the continental round of 16 for the fifth year in a row when they thrashed Al Rayyan 4-1 during Monday’s one-sided eliminator from Group D. Next up is their pursuit of domestic dominance.

Victory at third-placed Al Nasr on Saturday will guarantee a record-extending 13th top-flight crown and end a trophy drought stretching back to 2015’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup.

“We are looking forward to winning the league title because we have not achieved anything this season,” said Mamic, who joined in February 2017. “After that, we’ll think about the President’s Cup and then we’ll go back to focusing on the AFC Champions League.”

The goals at Doha’s Jassim bin Hamad Stadium came from Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat’s tap-in, a fierce free-kick from exiled UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman – who is now the club’s joint-top scorer in the ACL with legendary former centre forward Asamoah Gyan on 18 strikes – plus a pair of predatory finishes from Sweden No9 Marcus Berg.

Veteran Qatar target man Sebastian Soria produced a late consolation from close range.

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