Omar Abdulrahman is put in shade and other things learned as Al Ain exit ACL

Matt Jones 15/05/2018
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There will be no UAE representative in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League for the first time in five years after Al Ain limped out of the tournament thanks to an aggregate 8-3 thrashing by Al Duhail.

Up against it from a 4-2 defeat at home in the first-leg, the Boss were marched out by a ruthless display of precision from the hosts, who will now have designs on the overall title.

A ghastly game from the Garden City side

They may be the cream of the crop back home, but Al Ain’s milky performance against Duhail over two legs proved that there remains some way to go for them to rise to the top on the continent.

The Boss have been to the semi-finals of the Champions League in two of the last four seasons and reached the quarter-finals a year ago.

And even though entry to the last eight this year beckoned, they never looked remotely close to beating Qatar’s champions and launching another assault on an elusive second continental title.

While heartbroken compatriots Al Jazira were left to rue contentious refereeing and bad luck that saw them heroically exit on away goals at Iran’s Persepolis on Monday night following a 4-4 aggregate draw, there was no such saving grace for Zoran Mamic’s men to fall back on. They were soundly beaten.

The 2017/18 season ends on an anti-climactic note for the Arabian Gulf League champions – who reclaimed their throne and lifted a record-extending 13th domestic title. They added a seventh President’s Cup title and had been eyeing an unprecedented treble. But such lofty dreams were dashed in epic fashion in Doha.

In truth, a demoralising 4-1 defeat on the night and an 8-3 trouncing overall wasn’t even remotely harsh on the visiting side – with the writing on the wall as early as the 12th minute when Mohamed Ahmed tried to deal with a dangerous cross but could only prod past prone goalkeeper Khalid Essa.

Plenty for the domestic double winners to contemplate over the summer months ahead of next season.

Al Ain won a double domestically, but further glory will not follow in Asia.

Al Ain won a double domestically, but further glory will not follow in Asia.

Contrast in fortunes and form of both team’s playmakers

Omar Abdulrahman is the golden boy of UAE football, and was Asia’s crown jewel in 2016, too. But his sizeable fall from grace was evidenced here by how he could only occupy the shadow of Duhail’s dazzling Nam Tae-hee.

Just as Al Ain were second best to their impressive hosts in the second leg and overall in this tie, Abdulrahman’s influence paled in comparison to his opposite No10 who tortured the Boss with probing passes and evasive maneuvering.

It’s amazing to consider that Nam won’t be going to the World Cup with South Korea.

The two shared the same pitch but might as well have been playing in separate stadiums, such was the gulf in class between their performances.

Amoory grazed the outside of the post in his one flash of brilliance, something that has stayed hidden for much of this season.

He somehow collected a fourth Emirati Player of the Year accolade at the Arabian Gulf League Awards last week, despite falling way short of the exceedingly excellent standards he has set in both UAE and Asian football over the last decade.

A season marred by poor form and injury yielded the least domestic league assists (four) since 2014/15 (two) and the joint second fewest of his career since bursting onto the scene eight years ago.

He only featured in 13 games, his third lowest total. But his five goals were his fourth-best tally.

Nam was the QNB Stars League’s player of the season a year ago, putting former Barcelona string-puller Xavi in the shade. On Tuesday night it was Abdulrahman who he cast a dark cloud over.

Lead Duhail to the final and he should usurp him as Asia’s finest creator, too.

Omar Abdulrahman's influence on Al Ain this season has been diminished.

Omar Abdulrahman’s influence on Al Ain this season has been diminished.

Are we finally set for a western winner?

There hasn’t been a West Asia winner of the Champions League since Al Saad hoisted the trophy high seven years ago.

Since that 4-2 penalty shootout triumph over South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2011, teams from the east have outscored the west 8-3 in finals.

But the way Duhail ruthlessly cast aside the champions of the UAE on Tuesday night opens up the distinct possibility that the barren run could be ended this year.

In truth, western region teams have been more than a match for their counterparts from the east in recent years, on paper at least.

Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal were immeasurably more talented than rank outsiders Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014, but were beaten by the Australian’s grit and determination.

A lack of big game experience denied a supreme Al Ahli side victory in 2015, Cosmin Olaroiu’s men shaking off a dismal campaign domestically to reach the final, but they were unable to overcome an experienced group who were in their second final in two years.

In 2016, Al Ain simply didn’t seem to possess the mental fortitude to overcome a Leonardo-inspired Jeonbuk – with fellow Brazilian forward Douglas left broken by a fluffed penalty in the second leg of the final that proved to be the catalyst to his side’s downfall.

The tougher rounds are ahead. And Duhail will surely face a sterner test in the quarter-finals than the one provided by the Boss.

But on this evidence it will take something special to stop the newly-amalgamated side from becoming the second Qatari champions of Asia.

South Korea schemer Nam Tae-hee can lead Al Duhail to overall Asian glory.

South Korea schemer Nam Tae-hee can lead Al Duhail to overall Asian glory.

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Iconic Asian footballers host skills clinic with kids to promote 2019 Asian Cup

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Some of the greatest names in Asian football have given young footballers living in the UAE a thrill by hosting a special skills clinic in Dubai to help celebrate the final draw of the AFC 2019 Asian Cup.

Children from all communities were united by football fever. But it was those belonging to the Indian, Chinese and Thai communities who enjoyed a special surprise as they came face to face with their own national heroes who dropped in for the unique event hosted by the tournament’s Local Organising Committee.

The occasion perfectly embodied the spirit of the competition and brought to life the tournament theme of ‘Bringing Asia Together’.

The event saw current captain of India, Sunil Chhetri, China’s former national great Sun Jihai and Thai hero Pipat Thonkanya join forces to showcase their talents to the young fans.

The children got to go beyond watching or securing autographs as they took part in an 2019 Asian Cup Crossbar challenge and skills demo before posing for photographs beneath the iconic Burj Khalifa.

His Excellency Aref Hamed Al Awani, tournament director, said: “Already young dreams are coming true and the next generation inspired. That’s our mission and we hope the impact goes beyond football.  We want to excite and embrace each community living in the UAE and unite them through this beautiful game.

Former China and Man City midfielder Sun Jihai was one of the former stars to take part.

Former China and Man City midfielder Sun Jihai was one of the former stars to take part.

“We are blessed to have such a diverse nation but this tournament has the power to connect us all. You just have to look at the smiles on faces and feel the energy created by bringing people together through football to know this tournament is going to be very special.

“For these children their countdown to January 5 has already started and we hope that excitement will spread across the country.”

Chhetri, added: “This tournament is massive. Yes, it’s good for everyone in Asia to have the best 24 countries playing each other, but especially for India. The game is really growing and just qualifying for big tournaments like this means everything.

“It could also feel like a ‘home’ tournament if the Indian community in the UAE come out in numbers and support us. But any fan who loves the game can support India! We promise to put on a show.”

India skipper Sunil Chhetri.

India skipper Sunil Chhetri.

An expanded tournament format for 2019 will see the best 24 national teams from Asia participate at the Asian Cup, making it the largest edition staged and biggest sporting event hosted in the UAE.

A total of 51 matches will be played between January 5 and February 1, 2019, in eight stadiums located in three cities across the Emirates. The final draw took place on Friday with each group offering some tremendous ties.

China and former Manchester City midfielder Jihai added: “Football really is the number one sport in the world. It connects people and countries like no other. Just look at how it’s brought these children together and helped create new friendships.

“Recently China has invested a lot into football and we are improving. Perhaps in the future we can win a championship like the Asian Cup, but we need our fans to support us.

Kids pictured with Sunil Chhetri, Sun Jihai and Pipat Thonkanya in the backdrop of the Burj Khalifa.

Kids pictured with Sunil Chhetri, Sun Jihai and Pipat Thonkanya amid the backdrop of the Burj Khalifa.

“Anyone who loves football in China should come to the UAE. The fans are part of our squad. We need their fighting spirit and support to help our performances.”

Thonkanya added: “For the first time young children in Thailand want to grow up and become professional footballers. That is very exciting. So as a team we need to play on the biggest stage in Asian football, to inspire more to follow in our footsteps.”

For the latest 2019 Asian Cup news and information go to www.the-afc.com

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Impassioned Henk ten Cate urges Al Jazira players to 'write their names' into club folklore

Matt Jones 6/05/2018
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Rallying the troops: Henk ten Cate.

Henk ten Cate delivered a loud and impassioned speech where he urged his players to “write their names” into the annals of Al Jazira’s history by delivering them a maiden AFC Champions League quarter-final berth.

The Pride of Abu Dhabi are into the round of 16 of the competition for the first time in four years and face Iran’s Persepolis – beaten in the semi-finals a year ago by Saudi Arabia’s losing finalists Al Hilal – in the first leg on Monday.

Ten Cate’s men ended a brief one-year exile by competing in the continental tournament for the last two years, but two meagre group stage exits were mustered – they were statistically the 31st worst performing team of 32 both years.

But now they stand on the brink of breaking a club record – they have not qualified for the last eight of the competition in their 44-year history.

And after a poor defence of their Arabian Gulf League crown won 12 months ago, Jazira finished seventh this term, in the bottom half of the table, with a 25-point chasm between them and champions Al Ain, Ten Cate has issued a rallying cry to his troops.

“It’s all or nothing tomorrow. It’s as easy as that,” said the dynamic Dutch coach in an animated press conference ahead of the clash at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

“Everybody has to be aware of this. It’s not a kindergarten or a playground. This is the last 16 of the Champions League and this club can reach the quarter-finals for the first time in more than 40 years of their history. The very first time.

Jazira won the AGL crown a year ago, but finished seventh this season.

Jazira won the AGL crown a year ago, but finished seventh this season.

“I am a foreigner. I will leave this country and go back to my own country and live my life. The local players will stay here and their name will be written in the history of this club. If you do something good, this will be remembered by everybody, this is what they have to fight for. Not me.

“I will fight even though I’m not from here. Because this is my job, and I will be aggressive, but I am not playing. It is them who is playing and they have to write their name in the history of this club forever. This is what they can do.”

The words seemed to have an immediate effect on Jazira captain and goalkeeper Ali Khaseif, who was in attendance alongside Ten Cate.

He described the fighting spirit within this Jazira squad, one that has this season been forced to perform despite two of their foreign signings – Sardor Rashidov and Lassana Diarra – flopping, while Ten Cate has largely put his trust in youth during his two-and-a-half year reign.

“The good thing about our team is we fight. We are focused on the match and we will fight for it,” said the 30-year-old stopper.

“We are playing in our home. I don’t need to invite the UAE fans because I’m sure they’re going to be there to support us. We need them for the 90 minutes. Hopefully the players and fans will be ready.”

Persepolis coach Branko Ivankovic.

Persepolis coach Branko Ivankovic.

Persepolis coach Branko Ivankovic will have insider knowledge of his opponents, having managed capital rivals Al Wahda for a season in 2012/13.

The Croatian is fully aware the deposed AGL champions have not had a good season domestically, but he knows they have been rejuvenated in Asia.

“We know Al Jazira very well and we know their quality,” said the former Iran coach.

“Maybe they didn’t play so well this season but they played much better in the Champions League and much better than last season. Jazira want to do something in this stage to save their season, which was not so good like last season.”

And having progressed to the semi-finals in 2017, the 64-year-old is keen to bolster the dominant Persian Gulf Pro League holders’ Asian credentials.

“We are very proud to be playing in the second stage of the Champions League,” he added.

“Both teams have ambitions to qualify for the quarter-final. We want to continue our good results in the Champions League.

“We come here with lots of optimism. We are ready and have big ambition. It’s only the first half but tomorrow we want to start with a good result.”

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