Al Ain are once again champions of the UAE, and it feels strange to admit that it’s been a long time coming.
Their 13th top-flight domestic title – one that sees them extend their record as the UAE’s most successful club over Al Wasl and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club) – arrived courtesy of Saturday’s 4-0 hammering over resurgent Al Nasr.
It was a first trophy under affable Croatian Zoran Mamic – whose, up to now, barren tenure has been in stark contrast to the trophy-laden era of compatriot Zlatko Dalic and his predecessor Cosmin Olaroiu.
Three trophies were hoovered up by the now Croatia national team coach in a glorious three-year spell in the Garden City, while Romania’s Olaroiu won back-to-back titles from 2011-13, as well as 2012’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup.
However, it’s taken a little while for the seeds of further success sown by Mamic to blossom – the 2017/18 AGL title is Al Ain’s maiden trophy in 32 months, since the Arabian Gulf Super Cup was claimed in August 2015, ironically against Nasr.
It’s a gap in glory almost unimaginable to fathom when you consider the silverware tucked away in the club’s swollen trophy cabinet.
It’s been impressive to see Mamic stamp his own mark on the club this season, one which has for too long a period had the hulking shadow of Olaroiu, as well as the less frightening one of Dalic hanging above it.
Al Wahda’s chase had been impressive, as had the all-too-brief pursuit offered by Al Wasl, a rising AGL force but one that need to head back to the drawing board to combat a formidable return to form from the new champions.
Although Wasl have waned, Al Ain have been simply electric in their quest to return to the summit.
Only one game was lost this season – and even February’s 3-1 defeat to Sharjah was answered emphatically as Wahda were crushed 6-2 in the ensuing fixture.
Mamic has received huge returns from his formidable front line – an area of the field that has stymied the Boss in their relatively barren years.
Whereas the deadly Douglas had previously proved pretty prolific in front of goal, his confidence was shattered by a penalty miss in the AFC Champions League final second leg against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, with Al Ain defeated 3-2 and Douglas never recovering.
Replacement Marcus Berg is ice cold, underlining his superiority with a hat-trick against Nasr that carried his side to the title and him to the top of the AGL scoring charts.
Egyptian schemer Hussein El Shahat has proved an exquisite addition, the final piece of the puzzle, while youngster Rayan Yaslam has developed tremendously this season.
This return to success and all achieved without the withdrawn Omar Abdulrahman, whose season has been blighted by poor form, injury and indiscretion at international level.
The title has finally returned to the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. And if Amoory’s aura can likewise be rekindled, then who knows what more can follow next season.
The Arabian Gulf Super Cup in 2015 was the last big honour lifted by a club who go hand in hand with glory, with a deserved AGL title triumph also a first trophy of Mamic’s tenure.
Croatian craft has also been a feature of Al Ain’s recent success, with compatriot Zlatko Dalic having overseen the latest era of glory in the Garden City – lifting the league championship, the President’s Cup and Super Cup in a three-year stint, while also taking the club to the brink of continental glory as they finished runners-up in the 2016 AFC Champions League.
He moved onto the international stage with his nation, leading them to this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Mamic has been left to live not only in Dalic’s shadow but that of former Boss coach Cosmin Olaroiu too – the Romanian won back to back league titles in 2011/12 and 2012/13.
But he now has a title of his own to talk about, one that has been richly deserved in an utterly dominant season and won in style with a demolition job on the Champions League-chasing Blue Wave.
A tricky-looking fixture seemed like it would mean Al Ain having to wait until the final week of the season to secure a much-coveted success, especially with the hosts starting brightly at Dubai Club Stadium, Marcelo Cirino racing clear early on only to fire tamely at Khalid Essa.
Rashed Omer then headed well over as Nasr dominated the opening exchanges.
It took the visitors well over half an hour to register their first meaningful effort on goal when Omar Abdulrahman fired a free-kick into the arms of Nasr stopper Ahmed Shambieh.
A minute later, however, and the Boss were in front, through prolific Swedish marksman Marcus Berg.
January signing Hussein El Shahat did well to dispossess a defender, his ball was scuffed by ‘Amoory’ and palmed away by Shambieh but only into the path of the onrushing Berg, who gleefully tapped in for the easiest goal he’ll get all season.
Still, Nasr retained a grip on the game, but that was loosened on the stroke of half-time when Berg’s bullet header gave the champions-elect a firm grip.
A superb ball from defence split Nasr open and sent Brazilian flyer Caio racing down the left wing. He arrowed in a perfect cross and Berg climbed above Lebanon defender Joan Oumari and Shambieh could only push his header onto the bar, bouncing down over the line to put Al Ain in the ascendancy.
You wondered whether that would see the Blue Wave threat dissipate after the break and it did, the second 45 a mere procession as the brilliant Boss sensed a killer third.
It came just after the hour, predictably from Berg, although Shambieh should have kept it out. Japan international Tsukasa Shiotani sent in a high hanging cross to Berg who got away from Oumari too easily, nodding into the corner via a weak Shambieh hand.
It was now party time in Al Aweer, Abdulrahman rocking the crossbar soon after with a thunderous long-range effort.
They netted again when Shiotani’s tame shot squeezed past Shambieh but it was called back for an earlier foul, but there was to be a fourth in stoppage time, UAE international striker Ahmed Khalil climbing off the bench and curling in to bring out the commemorative title-winning T-shirts.
The Boss are back in charge.
It might extend their overall record to six more titles than both Al Wasl and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club) who have seven apiece, but it is a first league triumph in three seasons and a maiden title since 2015’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup.
Here, we take a closer look at how they won it.
SORTING OUT THE ATTACK
For too many years, the Boss have been brilliant at the back but lacked the personnel up front to carry them to a league title. While their goalkeeper and defence forms the foundation of the back five at international level, in attack they have looked fragile and lacking creativity.
Douglas, Danilo Asprilla, Emmanuel Emenike and Nasser Al Shamrani have all tried and failed to fill the huge goalscoring void left by the prolific Asamoah Gyan. But in Swedish spearhead Marcus Berg, they have found a focal point with which to pierce significant holes in any defence.
The former Panathinaikos and Hamburg man’s hat-trick here saw him surge to the top of the AGL scoring charts with 21 goals and 29 in total during a debut campaign which ends with a trip to Russia to carry his country’s hopes at this summer’s World Cup.
Brazilian winger Caio has caused havoc down both flanks to reiterate his brilliance – of which glimpses were shown in a debut 2016/17 campaign. But the spark has been the elusive Egyptian Hussein El Shahat, who has sprinkled a smattering of stardust on this team since his January arrival.
His presence has been the catalyst that’s driven Al Ain to a 13th title, with his performances earning him a call-up from Pharaohs coach Hector Cuper for March’s training camp and possibly a place on the plane to Russia.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
The table doesn’t lie, you very rarely win a league played over a long period via luck or with a few good performances – which can easily happen in a cup run.
Zoran Mamic’s men have been the best team in the Emirates this season, despite the admirable challenge of Al Wahda and diminishing one from Al Wasl. One defeat in 21 games speaks volumes to the Boss’ consistency, which has been a running theme throughout their season.
Wasl might well be the most exciting attacking team in the AGL and surged into contention early on following a lightning start which saw them go unbeaten in their first 11 games and lose just once in their opening 14.
After showing tremendous promise in Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s debut season a year ago, it seemed the Cheetahs would chase down a maiden league title in 11 long seasons following a blistering start – spearheaded by brilliant Brazilian talisman Fabio De Lima.
But they have capitulated since Christmas – losing five of their last 10 to fall drastically out of contention. They are even in danger of finishing outside the automatic places for AFC Champions League qualification, with the Blue Wave on their coat-tails.
Pragmatic but less powerful Wahda have stayed the course much longer, but the Boss have been simply breathtaking.
FINDING A WAY TO WIN
Al Ain have suffered from having a soft underbelly in recent seasons – their 2012/13 title triumph was followed by a miserable title defence which saw them finish a dismal sixth the following season.
They finished a distant fourth last term and there were signs early on this season that they remained fragile – they surrendered the lead twice to draw 2-2 with early pacesetters Wasl on the opening day of the season. Leads of 3-1 and 2-0 were thrown away against Sharjah (3-3) and champions Al Jazira (2-2) in the space of three games in October and November as the wheels threatened to come off their title bid.
But they’ve developed a backbone, and have got big results against their rivals, beating the Clarets and the Blue Wave home and away and taking four points off both the Cheetahs and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai. All of this has been overseen without their talisman Omar Abdulrahman being on top form.
Even when you felt a maiden defeat – the 3-1 loss to Sharjah at the end of February – might have derailed them, they answered emphatically in their next game, thrashing second-placed Wahda 6-2. Again they could have wilted after Balasz Dzsudzsak levelled the game when Al Ain had gone 2-0 up. But four goals in the final 18 minutes set up a four-game winning run which carried them all the way to a milestone title.