The UAE’s most-decorated club appear set for another glorious end to the season.
They ended a near three-year wait for silverware last month with a dominant, record-extending 13th Arabian Gulf League crown – wrapped up with a game to spare. Thursday’s prestigious clash at Zayed Sports City against the Cheetahs – who are determined to end an eight-year trophy drought – is the next challenge, prior to an intense two-legged tie versus QNB Stars League champions Al Duhail to make the 2018 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals on May 8 and 15.
“We are aiming to achieve all our goals in this season,” said 34-year-old UAE centre-back Ahmed. “After we finished the league, all our focus now is on making our fans happy in the most-prestigious tournaments [President’s Cup and AFC Champions League].
“The sense of responsibility in challenging for the title is a weapon for all the players against Al Wasl.
“Our motivation and confidence is high to win the President’s Cup, especially as this coincides with the Golden Jubilee of Al Ain and the Year of Zayed.”
In contrast, Wasl’s last trophy was the 2009/10 GCC Champions League. Prior to this, defeat to Al Ain in the 2006 President’s Cup decider was followed by a league and cup double a year later.
Fortunes and hopes have increased exponentially since June 2016’s arrival of coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Their second-placed finish in the 2016/17 top flight gained qualification to the ACL for the first time in a decade.
They embarrassingly lost all six Group C matches in that competition. But they went close with a 2-1 defeat to Al Wahda in the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf Cup showpiece, while they held onto third in the AGL.
قسمت مدرجات الاستاد مناصفة بين جمهور العين، وتكون البوابات، السفلية التي تحمل الأرقام "8، 12، 20، 24 و28 والعلوية التي تحمل الأرقام 11 و25 أما العائلات بوابة 4، فيما ستفتح أمام جماهير الوصل البوابات التي تحمل الأرقام 29، 33، 37، 43، 47 والعلوية 32 و48 أما العائلات فسيحمل الرقم 53 pic.twitter.com/icAbQtILmw— UAEFA (@uaefa_ae) May 2, 2018
This followed a drastic downturn in form. They were unbeaten leaders in the first half of the top flight, but lost five of their last 11 fixtures.
Arruabarrena, 42, paid homage to a squad possessed of “great enthusiasm and passion”, who confound incorrect tropes given to him before walking out at Zabeel Stadium.
He said: “The upcoming match against Al Ain in the final of the President’s Cup will be a very important match for the team, especially as the team is hungry to win titles and make historic achievements.
“I was told when I joined that I would find disgruntled players who did not follow the training schedule. But I found men, with great ability and who take responsibility.
“They also have great enthusiasm and passion to lead the team to the place that fits them, so I think that the players deserve to be in the final against Al Ain.”
The Cheetahs will have to do without suspended midfielder Abdullah Al Naqbi, who struck the only goal in Sunday’s 1-0 league win at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. Ex-Al Ain full-back Hazza Salem is injured.
For their opponents, UAE forward Ahmed Khalil is likely to drop out of the XI so Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat and 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman can wreak havoc.
Sweden No9 Marcus Berg’s quartet in the preceding 5-0 thrashing of Al Dhafra saw him top the AGL scoring charts with 25 goals.
“No matter how many finals I have won, even though I am the most prolific coach in Croatia, I am eager to gain more achievements with Al Ain and I hope we can win the trophy,” said coach Zoran Mamic.
In two AGL meetings this season, the sides played out an opening-day 2-2 draw in Al Ain and a 3-1 win for the visitors to Dubai.
Runaway First Division League champions Bani Yas have rewarded Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic with the sack less than a week after their coronation.
Tufegdzic, 46, took the reins when a switch to Al Shabab had to be aborted at the last-minute because of May 2017’s shock merger with Al Ahli and Dubai CSC. At his post in Abu Dhabi, the ex-Kuwait supremo oversaw a dominant campaign in which automatic promotion back to the Arabian Gulf League at the first time of asking was earned with games to spare.
Despite his effectiveness at Bani Yas Stadium, the 2010 Gulf Cup winner with Kuwait is left looking for a new employer.
“Bani Yas announces the termination of the relationship with the first-team trainer Mr Goran and his technical staff,” the Sky Blues tweeted. “This follows a full season in which Bani Yas qualified back to the Arabian Gulf League as First Division League champions.
“The football club provides many thanks to the trainer and his crew for all they have done and we wish them more success.
“In the coming days, the football club will announce the name of the new technical director of the first team after studying all the proposed names with the Technical Committee in order to reach the best choice for the future interests of the club.”
Tufegdzic had previously narrowly failed in his mid-season mission to maintain yo-yo club Ittihad Kalba’s top-flight status during 2016/17.
Promoted sides dumping their coach pre-season is a regular occurrence in the UAE.
But Ajman’s continued faith in Egypt’s Ayman Elramady was rewarded with safety for 2017/18.
Fujairah are struggling to convince Argentina legend Diego Maradona and assistant Luis Islas to make a return to the Arabian Gulf League-hopefuls, more than 24 hours after they prematurely announced the pair had agreed fresh one-year contracts.
The volatile Wolves chose on Friday to part ways with the World Cup 1986 winners, who’d led them to an unprecedented undefeated season. This surprise development came within hours of a 1-1 draw with 10-man Khor Fakkan that caused the First Division League-outfit to drop out of the automatic spots in the final round and into this month’s promotion play-offs.
This rash decision was, seemingly, met with immediate regret and a shock extension was announced on Monday night via the club’s official Twitter account. Yet, further confusion immediately followed when the FIFA Player of the Century’s lawyer – Matias Morla – stated “that to this day, Diego Maradona did not renew his contract”.
Complex negotiations have continued between the parties. But the Wolves are yet to make a convincing case for the duo to agree comebacks in time for the vital double header on May 9 and 13 against Hatta – the top-flight’s bottom-placed team.
Reverberations followed across the globe last May when Maradona agreed a one-year deal to return to the dugout on the UAE’s east coast. He was previously dismissed by Al Wasl in July 2012 midway through a two-year arrangement after a trophyless campaign.
The ex-Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli icon’s ambitious new employers had just finished a distant fourth during their opening campaign back in the second division, suffering eight losses.
A positive transformation swiftly followed at Fujairah Stadium under the incoming regime.
Beyond a top-three finish in their division and 10 more points gained than 2016/17, a creditable 4-2 loss was recorded last month against runaway AGL champions Al Ain in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
Maradona – who commuted more than 350 kilometres daily from Palm Jumeirah – was only hamstrung by a profligate attack. A total of 11 draws were registered, with penalties being missed in their last four fixtures.
This allowed Ittihad Kalba to usurp them on the final day for second place and join champions Bani Yas as guaranteed entrants into the 2018/19 top fight.
Fujairah’s fit of pique has left them scrambling for options ahead of their upcoming two-legged decider.
An approach to Dibba Al Fujairiah’s Brazilian tactician Paulo Comelli was rejected during the weekend.
They have also undertaken discussion with ex-Czech Republic midfielder Ivan Hasek. The 54-year-old saved Fujairah from relegation in 2014/15, but was sacked in March 2016 with the team bound for the FDL.