Al Ain must finally cast aside their Al Hilal inferiority complex to keep ACL dream alive

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Defender Mohamed Ahmed (r) of Al Ain will need to keep a lid on Al Hilal attacker Achraf Bencharki (l) once again.

The time to shake off Al Ain’s inferiority complex has arrived.

Whenever Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal are pitted against them, a strange reticence and deference sweeps over the UAE’s most-decorated club.

It cannot reappear in Monday night’s latest meeting. This fixture will either ignite or virtually end hopes of progression into the 2018 AFC Champions League’s group stages.

The stakes are that high. And in a notable change to the usual power dynamic, Hilal have rarely seemed comparatively weaker.

Diffidence from Omar Abdulrahman and Co was on show throughout the summer’s 3-0 thumping in the 2017 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals, as well as the one-sided meeting in the 2015 edition’s semi-finals.

Even February 13’s goalless draw can be seen through this prism. Although eminently creditable on the surface, the Crescent were less than two weeks away from dispensing with once-lauded Argentine coach Ramon Diaz.

Shows of respect towards a fellow Arabian Gulf colossus are acceptable. We are talking about the continental competition’s last two runners-up, plus leaders of their respective domestic leagues.

More signs of submission will lead to a result that almost guarantees an embarrassing failure to make the round of 16 for the first time since 2013.

For once, Hilal are there for the taking.

A long-term injury to 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin caused him not to be registered for the early rounds. Influential Saudi Arabia midfielders Salman Al Faraj and Nawaf Al Abed are also both sidelined, while their Swiss Army knife of a colleague Salem Al Dawsari continues to collect rust on the training pitches at La Liga’s Villarreal.

Argentine forward Ezequiel Cerutti has one goal in 10 run-outs since a winter switch from San Lorenzo. Morocco attacker Achraf Bencharki isn’t faring much better with two goals in nine matches during the same period.

There is also the small matter of Saturday’s shootout with great rivals Al Ahli Jeddah for the 2017/18 Saudi Professional League’s crown.

With Hilal currently in possession of a slender one-point lead and just one fixture left after the meeting at King Abdullah Sports City, minds could wander in the Garden City.

Especially when their Asian aspirations are in converse health. Juan Brown’s men have never before gone seven matches without victory in the ACL.

With just two points in Group D with two games left, they are on life support.

Hussein El Shahat (l) and Omar Abdulrahman (r) are key weapons in Al Ain's armoury (Al Ain).

Hussein El Shahat (l) and Omar Abdulrahman are key weapons in Al Ain’s armoury (Al Ain FC).

On paper, winless Al Ain only having double this tally thanks to four-successive draws hardly seems much better.

Yet they showed supreme character during their double header with Iran’s Estaghlal. Rare profligacy from 20-goal Sweden No9 Marcus Berg previously prevented deserved victory against Qatar’s Al Rayyan.

Positivity should be boundless after news broke during the international break that newly-capped Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat was signed up permanently until 2021. The 25-year-old has contributed seven goals and 12 assists in 12 matches since a loan arrival from Misr lel-Makkasa.

After a fitful campaign, 2016 AFC Player of the Year and crown prince of UAE football Abdulrahman conjured two clutch set-pieces to see off Al Jazira previously in the league.

He will also be refreshed and fired up after a forced exile during the international break for breaking curfew before January 5’s Gulf Cup final loss to Kuwait – in which he missed two spot-kicks.

In El Shahat and ‘Amoory’, the Boss have a double threat to instil fear in any opponent.

Coach Zoran Mamic must now press the launch button against Hilal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. This rare chance to strike cannot go to waste.

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