Al Ain. 2018 Club World Cup finalists.
More than 24 hours after their epic – and historic – victory against Copa Libertadores giants River Plate, this state of affairs still seems barely believable.
Clubs from the Arabian Gulf League are not meant to make such a grand stage. Shock met the achievements of last year’s host entrance, Al Jazira, as they gallantly fell to Real Madrid in the last four – the same fate, at best, was set for the Boss.
But there is something different about coach Zoran Mamic’s remarkable squad in 2018, something more tangible. Character abounds within the ranks.
“It is incredible what my players did tonight, how much energy, how much love for football, how much spirit, support for each other,” was the ex-Croatia’s international’s apt illustration, post-match.
His side are now close to making the greatest dream real, against Los Blancos, in Saturday’s global showpiece.
Everything we’ve seen from them says that they will make a fight of it. Their exploits, in the Club World Cup and beyond, have earned football’s rarest commodity – respect.
The likes of lethal Brazilian forward Caio, unceasing Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat, serial shootout saviour Khalid Essa and statuesque UAE veteran Ismail Ahmed have been standouts. This quartet can ensure another landmark performance is produced.
The Boss are UAE’s most-decorated club, and it’s most storied.
In 50 years of existence, they’ve claimed a record 13 Arabian Gulf League crowns. They are also the country’s sole AFC Champions League winners – in 2002/03 – and it’s most-recent finalists in 2016.
Remarkably, it took until 2017/18 for such prolific trophy hoarders to earn a first President’s Cup and top-flight double.
But cherished son Omar Abdulrahman was in situ, injury permitting, to ensure a near three-year trophy drought was ended. An acrimonious free-transfer switch to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal – his boyhood club – in August then threatened to undo all the good work from Mamic’s first full season at the helm.
That they came into the CWC as joint leaders of the AGL, and have performed so adeptly within it, acts as further evidence of this group’s unprecedented resolve.
Amoory’s absence has also allowed for the collective to come to the fore. Across 330 minutes in this tournament, a new bar has been set for the tempo that UAE outfits can perform at.
This characteristic has been on show throughout a CWC in which they began as a rabble and will end with them as heroes. No matter what happens at the weekend.
The Boss were egregiously bad in the opening 44 minutes of their first-round opener against New Zealand amateurs Team Wellington. A 3-0 deficit promised to bring a shameful – and premature – end to their journey this month.
The ruthless early hooking of spent ex-UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem and a dialling up of the intensity was required.
An emphatic, and laudable, response took the clash to penalties – a recurring theme – and their nerve held to complete the job in the resultant shootout.
Powerful CAF Champions League winners Esperance de Tunis should have crushed Al Ain in the quarters. Instead, an ingenious utilisation of two rampaging false 9s in Caio and El Shahat resulted in a dynamic and deserved 3-0 triumph. A spark had been lit.
Colombian forward Rafael Santos Borre’s quick-fire double saw a third-minute lead against mighty River dissipate in an instant.
Not even this setback, however, could halt Al Ain’s momentum and dampen their desire. Cheered on by an electrified support on home soil at the Hazza, they dominated the second half, were undaunted by Gonzalo Martinez’s penalty miss, and did the business in the shootout.
Amoory’s quality, unmatched in Asia, is missed. To say anything different is bluster.
But Al Ain have adapted under ex-Croatia international Mamic’s learned eye, coming out stronger as a whole.
The hard-earned right to fear no one is theirs.
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