Al Ain overcame a few early scares and initial woe in front of goal to surge into the AFC Champions League group stages on Tuesday night as the Boss brushed aside Bahraini champions Malkiya.
Zoran Mamic’s hosts were fortunate to be in this position having finished outside the ACL qualification spots in fourth during last season’s Arabian Gulf League.
But they were given a shot at redemption when new outfit Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club failed to get an AFC licence – clubs need to be in existence for at least two years to get one, meaning Mamic’s men got into the play-offs.
Once here though, they grabbed the opportunity with both hands, eventually.
But it was the away side who started the brighter of the two. Ahmed Al Dakheel, whose side won their first-ever Bahraini Premier League title last season, will have wondered how his team failed to take the lead in the 20th minute when a deep cross to the back post found Issa Al Wahab ghosting past his marker at the back post, the wideman leapt but his header from yards out bounced down and over the bar, somehow.
That shook the home side into life and captain Omar Abdulrahman – eligible to play as his four-match ban issued for breaking curfew on international duty is only domestic – thought he’d scored when he bent a brilliant shot goalwards, with ‘keeper Abdulkarim Fardan beaten, but so was the post.
Back came Malkiya on the counter-attack and striker Sayed Hashim somehow escaped the clutches of both Mohanad Salem and Mohammed Ahmed and audaciously tried to chip Khalid Essa, but the Boss stopper clawed it behind for a corner.
Swedish striker Marcus Berg then blazed over before impressive January acquisition Hussein El Shahat came closest to breaking the deadlock when he collected an astute Abdulrahman pass inside the area and dummied defender Sayed Adnan; he prodded goalwards but twice-capped Nigeria international Gege Soriola slid in superbly to clear off the line.
It appeared a goal would never come minutes after the restart when the lively Caio centered for Berg who failed to connect while from the resulting corner, the Brazilian winger nodded tamely at Fardan.
But eight minutes into the second period, Al Ain finally found the key to unlock the Malkiya defence, and it was new man El Shahat who opened the door.
The ball was played wide and the Egyptian midfielder delivered an inch-perfect first-time cross into the middle, it was on a plate for Berg who calmly sidefooted home much to the relief of the majority inside Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Another eight minutes later and the Boss’ passage into the group stages were effectively sealed, with El Shahat again the architect.
It came via another superb cross from the right flank, El Shahat this time going to the air, Caio arriving and stooping to send an unstoppable header home.
Mamic’s side will be joined in competition proper by UAE rivals Al Jazira, Al Wasl and Al Wahda when the tournament starts in 12 days’ time.
Al Ain have drawn a huge sigh of relief as their star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman is eligible to take the field Tuesday night in their crucial AFC Champions League play-off clash against Bahrain’s Malkiya.
Amoory is currently serving a four-match domestic ban imposed by the UAE FA after leaving the national team’s hotel the night before the Arabian Gulf Cup final loss to Oman in December.
It’s a second stroke of good fortune for the Boss who are lucky to even be in the qualifying stages for the ACL after finishing outside the qualification spots in the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League.
But since the new merger club, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, failed to get an AFC license in time, Al Ain were given their spot. Clubs need to be in existence for at least two years to qualify for the ACL.
The Boss have previous success in the tournament being the UAE’s only ACL champs, winning the very first final back in 2002/03 when they edged out BEC Tero from Bangkok 2–1 on aggregate.
Malkiya, based in Riffa, won their first-ever Bahraini title last season and currently sit third on the table.
“The opposing team includes young players and provides good levels so we have to show our real strength,” said Al Ain coach, Croatian Zoran Mamic.
“If we want to qualify we have to show the spirit and fight against the opponent until we manage to secure our place in Group D.”
It’s all or nothing on the night as the play-off is decided over just one leg, with extra-time and penalties if necessary, with the winner going through to the ACL Group stages.
“My confidence in Al Ain players and their high potential is very great” continued Mamic, “but such confrontations require special focus because there is no room for compensation and the experience of players is very important.”
Al Ain mid-fielder Hussein Al-Shahat is determined to perform well as the match represents his first appearance in the continental tournament.
“We respect the aspirations of the opposing team and we will deal with the high concentration throughout the game,” he said.
The ongoing Qatar crisis looks like it may bleed into the 2018 AFC Champions League’s group stages after several teams from the nation were yesterday drawn against rival clubs from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The latter-mentioned countries, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives all summarily severed relations with the Doha government in June because of its alleged support for terrorism.
This has forced strain on relations between the nations at all levels, with further discord caused last week when the Asian Football Confederation rejected pleas to play potential matches between clubs from the opposing blocs at neutral venues.
After Wednesday’s ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, all four Emirati outfits could play Qatari opposition.
The guaranteed meetings are between President’s Cup holders Al Wahda and the merged Al Duhail in Group B, plus 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League runners-up Al Wasl against Xavi’s Al Sadd in Group C.
If they beat Bahrain’s Malkiya in January 30’s play-off, Al Ain will compete against Michael Laudrup’s Al Rayyan in Group D. AGL champions Al Jazira could run-out against Al Gharafa in Group A if they see off Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor.