Zlatko Dalic’s men have endured a difficult five-week period in which they lost four out of seven games in all competitions, including league defeats to Sharjah and Al Shabab – their first in more than four months.
The Boss have emerged from their first testing period of the season, however, earning back-to-back league victories in their last two outings, adding Friday’s 4-2 win at home to Bani Yas to a 3-1 win in Al Clasico against rivals Al Jazira five days earlier.
“Hope still exists that we can win the league because the gap (to Al Ahli) is only one point,” said the UAE international defender, 31. “We lost two matches but we were not worried, we have overcome it and hopefully we can come back and win the league.”
Salem was speaking at an adidas event in Dubai Mall on Saturday to launch the new UAE home and away kits ahead of World Cup qualifiers with Palestine and Saudi Arabia at the end of the month, insisting he and his club-mates are determined to retain their league crown.
“We are with the national team but we are focusing on the local league matches too, then we will think about the national team matches,” said Salem.
Even though the AGL now takes a near-month break for AFC Champions League and international games, both Al Ain and Ahli will still have an eye on domestic matters as the two UAE giants face each other in a likely title showdown at Rashid Stadium on April 14.
Ahli midfielder Habib Fardan, also speaking at the kit launch, has challenged his team-mates to win their remaining five games of the AGL season, signifying the clash with the Boss as the key to the title.
“We have confidence. We have five games and we should win all of them because there is only one point difference to Al Ain and we cannot lose any,” he said. “All the focus will be on our game with Al Ain because it will be a six-point game. It will be the most important game.”
Ahli had set up an Arabian Gulf Cup final date with Al Wahda after a 3-2 semi-final win against Al Shabab, but they were replaced by the Hawks last week due to new signing Khamis Esmail being deemed ineligible following a January move from Al Jazira, but Fardan says that decision will not give the Red Knights extra motivation to win the league.
“We don’t think about this tournament now,” he added. “We are focused on the league and Champions League, and whatever happens we as players must forget about it and get over it.”
Ricardinho struck a late equaliser for Sharjah as they rescued a 2-2 draw with Emirates Club in a result that failed to ease either side’s relegation fears.
The Brazilian netted with three minutes remaining to salvage a point for the King, who move onto 25 points, six ahead of second-bottom Fujairah. Third-bottom Emirates are now three ahead of them but will be disappointed to have missed out on a vital three points having lead through first-half Walid Esmail and Alassane Diallo goals.
The Falcons went ahead after 14 minutes through Esmail’s sweet strike from the edge of the box. Sharjah were level just two minutes later, defender Ahmed ghosting in at the back post and directing a free header past Ali Saqr.
Diallo shrugged off Mauricio Ramos to curl a fine finish past Rashid Ahmed to restore Emirates’ lead before the break but the away side had the last say as Ricardinho beat the offside trap and controlled Nawaf Mubarak’s pass before stroking a fine finish past Saqr.
Elsewhere, Dibba Al Fujairah claimed a 1-0 win against Al Shaab to further allay their relegation worries. Boris Kabi was hero and zero for Dibba, scoring the only goal after just 10 minutes before being sent off for a studs up tackle in the 32nd minute to leave his side up against it. They held on though to move onto 25 points.
Cosmin Olaroiu will use the advice of Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola as he contends with nine of his Al Ahli players being away with the UAE national side.
The Arabian Gulf League takes a brief hiatus as Mahdi Ali’s Whites play Bangladesh in a friendly next Friday before two crunch World Cup qualifying games with Palestine and Saudi Arabia at the end of the month.
Nearly half of Ali’s squad comprises of players from the current AGL leaders and Olaroiu hopes his charges will return to Rashid Stadium following the international break unscathed.
The Romanian revealed after the Red Knights’ 2-1 victory against Al Shabab on Friday that he had been reading former Barcelona coach Guardiola’s book ‘Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich’ to get an insight into how the Spaniard dealt with his star players
being away with their various national teams during his debut campaign in Bavaria.
“What can we do. They have their national duty,” said Olaroiu.
“Today I was reading one book of Pep Guardiola’s, his first year in Bayern. He was most concerned when the players go to the national team because there they are there seven or eight days and change the way they train.
“They change their dream and when they come back they are a bit affected, but it depends how many days we have before the next game.”
Right-back Abdulaziz Haikal, who was the Red Knights man-of-the-match against Shabab, is one of the Ahli players called up by Ali and he leaves for international duty with some positive words from his club coach ringing in his ears.
“He is the best right back in the Emirates,” said Olaroiu.
“The only problem he has and from when I came here I tried to talk with him, is his concentration during the game. If he concentrates and is focused on what he has to do, I don’t think anyone can play in front of him.”
Olaroiu, the 46-year-old former Al Ain coach, can at least comfort himself in Saturday’s victory, which took Ahli back to the top of the table, a point ahead of the Boss, with five league games remaining.
“It’s important,” Olaroiu said of going into the break top of the table.
“First it’s important we play good. Second it’s good we stay in first place. I hope it gives us more confidence. I hope the national team players come back good and we continue on our way.”
However, if Ahli are to wrestle the AGL crown from Al Ain, they will have to do it the hard way, with four of their remaining five games against the Boss, Al Nasr, Al Jazira and Bani Yas.
“The players will take a few days’ rest then we start preparations for the end of the season as we have very tough games,” said Olaroiu.