Club World Cup adventure against Real Madrid must be starting point for incredible Al Ain

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It would be an easy mistake to make.

Saturday’s gallant Club World Cup-final loss to Real Madrid represents the zenith for the UAE club football.

Al Ain made history, joyous and utterly unexpected, by making it that far. To down iconographic Copa Libertadores winners River Plate, then to be beaten 4-1 by a side featuring Ballon d’Or holder Luka Modric, fearsome Spain skipper Sergio Ramos and Wales wonder Gareth Bale.

This is, however, just window dressing for the Boss.

Deep progress at the Club World Cup provides an unforgettable moment. But this is a special tournament, at a special time.

Unique lessons learned during 11 days of transfixing competition in the UAE must be taken in, digested and enacted upon for the everyday challenges which lie ahead. And there for are plenty for the UAE’s most-decorated club and their exceptional squad to face.

A belief that a job-well done began and ended at Zayed Sports City this weekend will tarnish the incredible achievements witnessed this month.

This group have shown to a global audience that teams from the Middle East can play elite football, at a punishing tempo.

Sweden No9 Marcus Berg has helped to breakdown aspersions about the region representing ‘one final payday’ for European has-beens. Porto-target Caio and rising UAE star Rayan Yaslam evidence that youthful talent is out there – it’s not just full of enriched never-beens.

Coach Zoran Mamic has managed a gruelling fixture schedule – four matches in less than a fortnight – and showed bountiful insight to successfully change formations from game to game.

The ex-Croatia international must also have a true grip on his team, judging by an ability to rebound so emphatically from being 3-0 down to New Zealand amateurs Team Wellington and then winning the first of two penalty shootouts.

Never before has any Middle East side – both at club and international level – so successfully utilised set pieces against foreign opposition. Esperance de Tunis – in the emphatic 3-0 dismantling in the quarter-finals – and semi-final opponents River Plate – for the opener in an epic 2-2 draw – both fell victim to an overtly physical approach they would not have predicted.

Plentiful challenges now open up from this point.

About a third of the UAE’s squad for next month’s Asian Cup, on home soil, will be drawn from the Boss ranks.

There will be no rest for veteran centre-back Ismail Ahmed, CWC star Mohamed Ahmed and a host of their team-mates. They head straight to Dubai’s state-of-the-art Nad Al Sheba Training Complex for final preparations and to impress ahead of December 26’s dread cut to finalise the 23-man tournament squad.

Knowledge of playing under such pressure can only be a boon for ailing hopes of matching expectations under boss Alberto Zaccheroni.

Once the continental competition is done, a tense three-way fight to retain the Arabian Gulf League continues. Unbeaten leaders Sharjah and Al Jazira have come from nowhere to test Al Ain’s domestic dominance.

The danger of attention slipping was already shown earlier this month when a defence of the President’s Cup was ended at the first stage, with a bedraggled 5-3 loss to woeful Al Wasl.

Spring then throws up an 2019 AFC Champions League group that also contains Saudi Professional League holders – plus current employers of injured golden boy and summer defector Omar Abdulrahman – Al Hilal, rampant Qatar Stars League champions Al Duhail – who thrashed them in last year’s round of 16 – and Iran giants Esteghlal.

Slips of concentration after the Madrid mania subsides just cannot be countenanced. There is too much at stake.

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