Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has a healthy respect for 2018 AFC Champions League rivals Al Duhail rather than fear, ahead of an intriguing round-of-16 clash between dominant domestic double winners.
A 2-1 victory for the 10-man Boss against Al Wasl on Thursday saw them add the President’s Cup to an Arabian Gulf League title claimed with a round to spare. This was the first time the UAE’s most-decorated club had achieved this feat during 50 years of existence.
Knockout opponents Duhail have registered even better results in a relentless first season since last April’s merger with El Jaish. They became just the fourth side in the ACL’s history to win all six group matches, while they were undefeated throughout the 2017/18 QNB Stars League and also took the Qatar Cup.
These achievements tee up a tantalising two-legged clash, beginning with Tuesday’s meeting at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
“We also made a great season and won the double,” said Mamic, whose troops drew their opening four Group D-fixtures to come home second. “I am not scared, but I have lots of respect for Al Duhail.
“This is because they have had a great season, they’ve won the double and did very good in the group stage.
“But this is only respect. We also have a very ,very good team that is full of quality.”
Mamic’s achievements in his first full season at the helm have been made more impressive by the fact they ended a near three-year trophy drought.
Brazilian forward Caio expanded on the confidence buzzing around the dressing room.
He said: “I feel good and the whole team feels very good. This is because we took two titles.”
Suspensions to influential Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat and UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem hamper the Al Ain case.
“I have to think about replacements,” said a pragmatic Mamic.
“This is the normal law in football. Thanks to God, we have good replacements.”
Duhail will be without electric Tunisia winger Youssef Msakni after last month’s serious knee injury ended his World Cup 2018 dream.
Arruabarrena, 42, worked wonders since his June 2016 arrival at an outfit who operate within their financial means. Finishes of second and third in the Arabian Gulf League represent the best of an otherwise trying professional era, while this term witnessed narrow defeats in the Arabian Gulf Cup and President’s Cup showpieces.
But the former Argentina, Boca Juniors and Villarreal left-back’s startling progress has gone without appreciation at Zabeel Stadium.
“Following a meeting with the technical body, the football club announces the non-renewal of the contract with team trainer Rodolfo Arruabarrena and his associate technical staff at the end of their current contract period,” the Cheetahs tweeted on Sunday.
This move was met by incredulity on Instagram from their Brazilian striker Caio Canedo.
He posted: “Whattttt?!!!!!!! Coach Rodolfo should stay!!!”
Arruabarrena guided Wasl to a club-record 23 undefeated AGL matches from January 2017-January 2018. They led the 2017/18 competition at the halfway stage, only to limp home third after five reversals from their last 11 games.
The Cheetahs this year also marked their return to the AFC Champions League after a decade away with an ignominious six losses out of six Group C-fixtures.
تعلن شركة #الوصل لكرة القدم عقب اجتماعها مع الجهاز الفني عدم تجديد التعاقد مع مدرب الفريق رودولفو أروابارينا وجهازه المعاون بنهاية فترة تعاقدهما الحالية، وتتقدم الشركة بالشكر للمدرب وطاقمه الفني على ما قدموه للنادي، متمنية لهم التوفيق والنجاح في مسيرتهم القادمة pic.twitter.com/fhmO70RXQc— Al Wasl SC (@AlWaslSC) May 6, 2018
Overtures had already been made to him by Shabab Al Ahli before his exit was confirmed. A sizeable rebuilding task awaits at the merged club after a miserable inaugural season, with all six foreign players on their books expected to be leave.
Chile’s Jose Luis Sierra, 49, of Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad is among several candidates to be discussed at Rashid Stadium.
Former Al Hilal tactician Ramon Diaz, 58, is the early favourite for the Wasl post.
But the beaten 2017 AFC Champions League finalist’s wage demands of €4 million per annum (Dh17.6m) are almost double the €2.2m (Dh9.7m) countryman Arruabarrena earned.
Meanwhile, runners-up Al Wahda have revealed renewals for 110-goal striker Sebastian Tagliabue, iconic forward Ismail Matar and UAE right-back Mohammed Al Menhali.
Argentina icon Diego Maradona’s passion for coaching continues to burn bright and his priority remains finding a new UAE club for 2018/19, despite a rollercoaster recent exit from Arabian Gulf League-prospects Fujairah.
The in-demand, joint FIFA Player of the Century has fielded two offers from First Division League clubs, plus overtures from international and South American outfits, amid tumultuous negotiations with the Wolves which featured several shock U-turns prior to Thursday’s definitive end.
Maradona, 57, stunningly left his position with the undefeated Wolves within hours of a 1-1 draw against 10-man Khor Fakkan on April 27 which saw them drop out of the automatic promotion spots to the top flight.
An announcement followed from the east coast-side three days later about a shock comeback, but talk of a new one-year deal was quickly rubbished by the legendary ex-Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli forward’s lawyer.
Fujairah then tweeted a message which stated requests for his “contract to be quadrupled” had caused discussions to be terminated ahead of the play-offs.
Ex-Dibba Al Fujairah, Al Dhafra and UAE Under-23 tactician Abdullah Mesfer was announced on Saturday as the man who will lead them on May 9 and 13 versus the AGL’s bottom-placed side, Hatta.
However, sources close to the legendary World Cup 1986 winner have rejected the claim. They also reiterate an ambition for a third stint in the Emirates – he was previously dismissed by Dubai’s Al Wasl midway through a two-year arrangement in July 2012.
“Maradona enjoyed his time at Fujairah,” they told Sport360. “He made a big effort, travelling nearly 400 kilometres every day.
“He didn’t care about this distance. As soon as he walked onto the training pitch, he was happy.
“It is no surprise to say someone like Diego has received offers from all over the world. But his priority is the UAE.
“He feels comfortable there and wants to continue. We were also very surprised to hear the reasons why Fujairah said they ended talks.”
Reverberations were felt across the globe last May when Maradona agreed to end his five-year exile from the dugout and lead the ambitious Wolves for 2017/18.
But profligacy in front of goal saw a draining 11 draws registered. Their final-day stalemate caused them to be critically knocked into third place by Ittihad Kalba.