Boss Henk ten Cate has revealed he was “convinced” about Al Jazira’s sterling progression to the 2018 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 from the moment he knew that a full-strength squad could finally be selected for Tuesday’s trip to Qatar’s Al Gharafa.
Exiled UAE striker Ali Mabkhout’s completion of a brace with the last kick at Thani bin Jassim Stadium secured an engrossing 3-2 triumph that guaranteed entry to the knockouts for the first time since 2014. This penultimate Group A-clash featured welcome returns by the likes of the two-goal match-winner, influential centre midfielder Mohamed Jamal and UAE forward Ahmed Al Attas.
“To be honest, yes, I did,” said Ten Cate when quizzed about whether he expected the result to send them through via a superior head-to-head record versus Gharafa. “The team were convinced, too.”
“You need to know that since September or November, this is the first time we have a full squad of players. Some of them just came back from injury.
“We felt in the past few days before the match that the players wanted to come here and achieve something.
“Anything can happen in football, and after the 20th minute I thought it wouldn’t be easy.
“It was vital that we make it through to the last 16, both for the club and the UAE.”
To top the section after April 17’s decider, they’ll need to better fellow qualifiers Al Ahli Jeddah’s 2-1 triumph in February’s reverse meeting.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has brushed aside the uproar caused by his side controversially earning three first-half penalties and declared “history will only recognise the winner” after a pivotal 2-1 triumph against enraged Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
A dramatic opening period at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium saw exiled UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman miss from 12 yards and prolific Sweden centre forward Marcus Berg decisively convert twice.
Monday’s decisions from Chinese referee Ma Ning helped eliminate the 2017 edition’s runners-up. It also ended a four-match spell of draws in this year’s competition for the Boss, who must now avoid defeat at Qatar’s Al Rayyan to progress into the knockouts when Group D winds up on April 16.
“I have not seen the match on TV yet,” said Mamic, whose troops have earned five penalties in the opening stage.
“Still, from my position I saw that they were correct and I believe that it is the referee who was so close and saw the violation as a result of tackling my players. At any rate, if there are mistakes, they are still part of football.
“History will only recognise the winner and tomorrow nobody will mention the referee.”
A forced observer at the Hazza was new Egypt cap Hussein El Shahat. The 26-year-old watched on from behind the dugout after an ankle knock incurred during March 17’s 3-2 victory at Al Jazira in the Arabian Gulf League was aggravated on international duty.
Mamic remained hopeful the champions elect will be able to count on the midfielder for Friday’s resumption against lowly Dibba Al Fujairah.
He said: “We hope to have him on-board in the coming match against Dibba. El Shahat had a kick on his ankle during our recent match against Al Jazira and after joining Egypt’s national team, he was hit again in the same place. Currently, he’s enrolled in a rehabilitation programme.”
Al Ain boast a four-point lead over Al Wahda, with just three games left.
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.
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.