Mohannad Salem insists Al Ain are not simply content with the honour of participating in the AFC Champions League but have ambitions of challenging for a second continental title.
The Boss’ Champions League hopes have reached a critical point on the eve of an historical clash with Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal on Monday.
Both sides have tasted Asian success in the competition’s various guises, with Hilal victorious in the Asian Club Championship in 1991 and lifting it again in 1999/2000.
Al Ain hoisted the Champions League trophy in 2003 but both occupy the bottom two spots in Group D going into the final two games of this stage, with Iran’s Esteghlal and Qatar’s Al Rayyan joint top.
Zoran Mamic’s side have drawn all four games so far and sit third, two points adrift of the top two. And UAE veteran Salem knows it is crunch time for his side in the Garden City on Monday night.
“We are ready and motivated and the goal of Al Ain in the Champions League is not limited to just the honor of participating,” said the 33-year-old centre-back.
“Our ambition is to win the title and emerging from the group stage only will not satisfy us. I hope that we reach the final and win the title and I hope to have the strong support of the fans tomorrow as we welcome Al Hilal because the fans are an important element of the team.”
If Al Ain are in a precarious situation, visitors Hilal’s chances of progression are on life support following two defeats and two draws in their opening four games.
Only victory will do for Juan Brown’s side, who have lost two of the last four finals – including being defeated 1-0 by Japan’s Urawa Reds a year ago and going down by the same scoreline to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, having beaten the Boss in the semi-finals.
Tsukasa Shiotani scored a sublime goal to rescue a point for Al Ain in a 1-1 draw with Esteghlal in Tehran – a fourth straight draw for the Boss in this season’s AFC Champions League.
After coming from behind twice to seal a 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium a week ago in a game that saw the hosts awarded two controversial penalties, it was the hosts who were this time the recipients of a generous refereeing decision when Hong Kong official Kwok Man Liu pointed to the spot in the 39th minute.
Contact looked minimal between visiting defender Ismail Ahmed and Farshid Esmaeili, with replays proving the Iranian midfielder had thrown himself theatrically at the UAE international, while any contact had actually occurred outside the box.
But Senegal striker Mame Thiam confidently stroked home the spot-kick for his third goal in two games against the Boss to give his side the lead at a raucous Azadi Stadium, where the attendance was 90,000.
But Al Ain kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the last 16 when Japan’s Shiotani played a smart one-two with youngster Rayan Yaslam to curl beyond Seyed Hosseini with his weaker right foot with 12 minutes remaining.
Both sides pushed for a winner but Marcus Berg fired wide when in a good spot 12 yards out before Khalid Essa beat out substitute Ali Ghorbani’s stoppage time shot.
The away side came into this crunch clash amid a backdrop of animosity, following events in the Garden City last week.
Esteghlal, managed by former Al Ain coach Winfried Schaefer, were also set to be out for revenge after a 6-1 hammering in the second leg of last year’s last 16 between these sides, a result which had followed a 1-0 victory for the hosts in Tehran.
They had Zoran Mamic’s men under the cosh from the start with visitors seemingly keen to soak up home pressure and settle themselves amidst a vociferous atmosphere.
Once they overcame a lively start from the hosts, Shiotani served notice of his power as he unleashed a fierce strike from distance following a corner that whistled past keeper Seyed Hosseini’s near post.
The pressure was coming mainly from the hosts but the best chances were falling to the Boss and talisman Omar Abdulrahman almost silenced the home crowd when his wonderful curled effort was brushed onto the bar by Hosseini.
Just as they were beginning to get a grip on the game, Al Ain fell behind in farcical circumstances.
Esmaeili went over the leg offered by Ahmed even though there was no contact and it was just outside, but the referee pointed to the spot much to the ire of the Al Ain players, with keeper Essa booked for protesting where the ball was positioned.
After several minutes of furious debate, Thiam tucked away the spot kick coolly.
Marcus Berg couldn’t get set and Hosseini blocked his weak effort early in the second half. Minutes later Daryoush Shojaeian fired tamely at Essa. Young Al Ain star Yaslam then curled just wide in the 73rd minute but the 23-year-old then exchanged passes with Shiotani as the defender fired his side level.
Elsewhere, Al Wahda kept alive their slim hopes of qualifying for the knockout rounds with a maiden win in the Group B clash with Iran’s Zob Ahan.
The Clarets, pointless prior to the game following three straight defeats, swept to a 3-0 win at Zayed Sports City. Argentine talisman Sebastian Tagliabue put them in front on the stroke of half-time from Balazs Dzsudzsak’s assist, before the Hungary winger then teed up Mourad Batna for a second three minutes before the hour mark. Batna then set up Mohamed Al Akbari to wrap up the win and a priceless three points eight minutes later.
Laurentiu Reghecampf’s side are now level on points with Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent after they lost 2-1 at home to Qatari group leaders Al Duhail.
A humiliating exit in the last 16 a year ago and two controversial penalties which rescued a 2-2 draw in the Garden City a week ago mean anything except a rosy welcome is expected when Al Ain take on Esteghlal in Tehran on Monday evening.
The Boss are preparing for a crucial AFC Champions League encounter against the backdrop of what is expected to be a poisonous atmosphere at the cavernous 100,000 capacity Azadi Stadium, with Iranian press reporting in the lead-up to the game that the Group D match could be marred by hooliganism.
Malaysian referee Mohd Amirul Izwan bin Yaacob awarded two penalties to Al Ain at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday – one of which was missed by Marcus Berg, with the second scored by Ahmed Khalil in the 89th minute to earn the hosts a priceless 2-2 draw.
That, coupled with a humiliating 6-1 hammering in the UAE in the second leg of the first knockout round last May after they had won the home leg 1-0 in Tehran, has fired up the home fans ahead of this crucial clash.
In addition, Iranian New Year or ‘Nowruz’, being celebrated on March 21 and a prelude to the country’s independence on April 1, has initiated fears that fireworks could be brought to the game and let off by excited home fans.
Whatever the reception awaiting his team, Al Ain talisman Omar Abdulrahman insists the visitors will be able to cope with a charged atmosphere.
“We are well aware our task will not be easy against Esteghlal in front of their home fans, but we are a great team and have the ability, expertise and capabilities to face all the challenges ahead of us, whatever the circumstances,” said the 2015 AFC Player of the Year.
“We come to Tehran in order to win and return with three points, which enhances our chances to claim one of the two qualifying spots in the group.”
On the tone set by the Iranian press ahead of the match, Abdulrahman, who scored two of the six Al Ain goals in the second leg 10 months ago, added: “The players are accustomed to dealing with such matters.
“We have a strong desire to win and a great fighting spirit and experience to face all possible circumstances and our response to them will be in the field. We as players trust in our ability to achieve our ambitions.”
The Asian Football Confederation has warned Iran’s football federation (Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran) that the club could face a two-year ban from the continental competition should there be a repeat of the issues from a year ago.
Esteghlal were fined $51,000 after fans flashed laser beams at opposing players and referees during their Champions League qualifier against Qatar’s Al Sadd in February and again in a group stage game against Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in March.
Fans also hurled “missiles which caused explosions” in the Lokomotiv game which caused the stadium to be evacuated and earned them the fine and a warning.
A specialist security official has even been appointed by the AFC for the game while strongly-worded warnings have been issued to the club by the FFIRI.
The draw last time out was Al Ain’s third in a row but could prove crucial to their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage in a group no-one apparently wants to win – with just one victory recorded in the opening six matches.
They are third on three points, level with Qatar’s Al Rayyan, and only two points adrift of Monday’s opponents, who are the only side in the group to win a game, in addition to two draws.
The Boss will be without Brazilian wideman Caio for the trip due to injury, but Abdulrahman added his confidence in coach Zoran Mamic to come up with a plan to enable Al Ain to win.
“I think the positives are on our side and the negatives are reflected on the opposing team. Coach Zoran has a good technical reading of the ideal way to face this team and get the best result in Tehran.”
Esteghlal coach Winfried Schaefer understands there is likely to still be a lot of anger prominent in the stands after the way they had victory taken away from them a week ago, but he insisted his players will not put undue pressure on the match official.
“I read some reports published by newspapers in English which spoke about justice and accusing the officials in the previous match of not adhering to the rules of the game but I remain supportive of them and thank God I am not a referee,” said German Schaefer, who coached Al Ain from 2007-09.
“My players have a good personality and need to deal with all circumstances professionally. They will not be affected by messages of the media because it is possible to make mistakes and we too make mistakes in football.
“I hope to see the stadium full of encouragement because we have to defend the reputation of Iranian football.”