The big winner when Al Ain face Argentina heavyweights River Plate in the Club World Cup semi-finals could be sat in the stands.
UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni is unlikely to pass up the opportunity on Tuesday to scout, roughly, a third of his Asian Cup squad in action.
With the eyes of the globe transfixed on Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, hearts of a nation behind the Boss and the pressure amplified on home soil for, arguably, the biggest game in the storied history of the UAE’s most-successful club, you couldn’t wish for a better warm-up to next month’s continental festivities.
Veteran UAE centre-back Ismail Ahmed was dominant in the emphatic 3-0 quarter-final thrashing of Tunisia’s Esperance, only a few days since he was part of a porous backline that conceded three against New Zealand amateurs Team Wellington.
Playmaker Rayan Yaslam showed no ill-effect from a nagging knee problem upon his return to the starting XI versus Esperance. A pair of fine assists followed for the chosen successor to crocked superstar – and mentor – Omar Abdulrahman.
Versatile defender Mohamed Ahmed’s header against the North Africans was the quickest in CWC history, while ceaseless right-back Bandar Al Ahbabi was outstanding. Goalkeeper Khalid Essa pulled off the decisive save in the penalty shootout against Team Welly and Ahmed Barman has started both matches in defensive midfield.
Centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman has impressed off the substitutes’ bench and defender Mohammed Fayez has proven his fitness after a debilitating knee injury.
All are gaining invaluable experience, ahead of January 5’s big kick-off against Bahrain at Zayed Sports City. All are showing Zaccheroni exactly what they are made of.
The Italian supremo’s defining test in the Whites hot seat began in earnest this weekend when a preliminary 26-strong roster was selected for the final training camp. Al Ain’s sizeable contingent will join up shortly after Saturday’s finals day – be that following a third-placed play-off or likely glamour decider against Real Madrid’s aristocrats.
Then, comes the big cull on December 26 and submission of the final 23-man selection.
A battle-hardened Boss cohort will be major figures in any UAE success.
Round 13 of the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK – GIOVANNI SIO (ITTIHAD KALBA)
The Ivory Coast forward’s loan stint at Kalba began with a bang, a superb debut goal against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.
But little had been heard from him since. This quiet spell ended in Friday’s 3-1 beating of sorry Al Wasl.
A good run and cross teed up Myke Ramos’ goal, before Sio’s expert curling completed the job. That’s more like it.
GOAL OF THE WEEK – LEROY GEORGE (BANI YAS)
The ex-Netherlands Under-21s international arrived in Abu Dhabi this summer with a reputation for the spectacular.
This flamboyant side was showcased in the 6-1 thrashing of floundering Dibba Al Fujairah.
A low cross seemed to have critically gone behind him, but an insouciant spin and back heel sent the fifth goal in. With some style.
COACH OF THE WEEK – DAMIEN HERTOG (AL JAZIRA)
What a shrewd decision it was by the Pride of Abu Dhabi to keep faith with assistant Hertog when Marcel Keizer jumped ship last month.
The 44-year-old has continued the excellent work of his mentor, plus maintained a championship-winning level of desire.
Jazira were a goal and a man down on 77 minutes. Yet they would beat Al Nasr 3-1. Outstanding.
WASL’S INACTION SEES THEM HURTLING TOWARDS UNLIKELY RELEGATION
It is now nearly two months since Al Wasl dismissed Bolivia’s Gustavo Quinteros mere hours after a Bur Dubai derby loss to Al Nasr.
They were ninth then, just three points off the relegation zone. Under caretaker Hassan Al Abdouli, they are 12th and two points from danger.
A permanent solution must be found in the mid-season break. Or disaster beckons.
The Club World Cup came alive on Saturday night when a Hussein El Shahat-inspired Al Ain raced into the semi-finals with a 3-0 dismantling of Esperance de Tunis.
Regular watchers of the Arabian Gulf League-holders would not have been shocked by El Shahat’s brilliance. For the uninitiated, this is what makes the versatile 27-year-old so special.
WHAT MAKES HIM SO GOOD?
El Shahat is, quite simply, a natural.
Play him at right-back, centre midfield, attacking midfield, playmaker or even – as we found at the weekend in coach Zoran Mamic’s surprise 4-4-2 formation – up top, and brilliance will follow.
Tireless work rate is twinned with technical acumen, while stamina earned from his days in defence mean he can keep going all match.
His skills were best exemplified in Al Ain’s sweeping second against the Tunisians.
They stormed up the pitch at pace, with El Shahat racing onto Rayan Yaslam’s pass across the backline. A difficult trap killed the ball, before a cutback befuddled four Esperance defenders and allowed space to decisively curl home.
BUILDING ON AN INCREDIBLE IMPACT
The final day of the 2017/18 winter transfer window was a propitious one for Al Ain.
An Egyptian came in on loan, with little reputation to speak of. Yet, Al Ain’s technical staff had done their homework.
El Shahat’s move up the field from right-back at mid-table Misr Lel Makkasa had seen a sizeable nine goals struck in the early stages of the Egyptian Premier League.
The tap would not been turned off in the Garden City. An influential seven goals and nine assists followed in 11 AGL matches, as the title was brought back to Garden City for the first time since 2015/16.
This wasn’t enough to earn a berth in Egypt’s World Cup 2018 squad, after March’s debut. But it gained him a lucrative permanent move to Al Ain and a spot in the club’s affections.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
A hosts of sides from across the Arabian Gulf, plus even Turkey’s Besiktas, chased El Shahat last season.
These suitors have not gone away, especially ones from the moneyed Saudi Professional League.
But only one clubs remains El Shahat’s “dream” – Al Ahly. Esperance’s recent CAF Champions League-win at the Cairo giant’s expense weighed on his mind, prompting an inflammatory ‘3-0’ finger gesture at the death on Saturday.
The two-year deal handed to CWC specialist signing and Mali defensive midfielder Tongo Doumbia points at imminent departure from the Boss’ four-player foreign quota…