Marcus Berg toiled and tried pretty much everything as Al Ain succumbed to a damaging 5-1 defeat against fierce rivals Al Jazira in the biggest game in UAE football – Al Clasico.
It was far from a classic for the Boss, though, who were rattled from a blistering start from the hosts who took a 3-0 lead. Ismail Ahmed’s bullet header on the stroke of half-time reduced the deficit to 3-1 after Ernest Asante, Ali Mabkhout and Nacer Barazite had put the Pride of Abu Dhabi 3-0 ahead.
The Boss, hoping to keep hold of second spot in the Arabian Gulf League behind leaders Sharjah as well as clinging to feint hopes of retaining their title, went further behind after Asante scored his second, while Mabkhout completed the scoring at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
We kept an eye on the performance of Sweden international Berg.
GOT RIGHT – THORN IN THE SIDE
On what was a difficult night for the champions, at least Berg emptied everything, including the kitchen sink, from his locker that he could throw at the rampant hosts.
He was always the focal point of crosses from the flanks, a good tactic from the visitors in an attempt to fluster a youthful backline that included 21-year-old Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi, 20.
It was a good ploy and Berg, at times, did hassle the duo with his size and strength, but he was too often isolated and starved of service, looking to conjure something out of nothing.
GOT WRONG – FINISHING
You wouldn’t say many of his chances were clear cut as Al Ain pumped high balls into the box hoping to utilise their frontman’s 6ft frame, but on another night, certainly, the Swedish striker would have hoped to have put at least two chances away.
A weak shot, a couple of tame headers and a lack of poise at crucial times littered his evening.
That’s not to say his profligacy was the root cause of Al Ain’s woes, far from it. But if he had found the back of the net a few times from his glut of chances, the Boss might well have found their way back into the game.
12th min: First sight of goal for Al Ain, a cross comes in and Jamal Maroof sends a free header over from six yards
42nd min: Are the Boss back in it? Totally against the run of play, Al Ain get a corner out of nothing and Ahmed is left all alone to plant a header past Ali Khaseif from Caio’s delivery
43rd min: Berg runs clear of the Jazira defence but his weak prod is straight at Khaseif
65th min: Bandar Al Ahbabi delivers but Berg directs his header only into the grateful arms of Khaseif
70th min: Another cross is aimed at Berg who climbs high but sends his header onto the roof of, rather than into, the Jazira net
75th min: Ball is floated in to Berg who’s all alone but can’t gather to get a shot in on goal
Jazira welcome second-placed and reigning Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium foran Abu Dhabi derby renowned as the biggest club game in UAE football.
The hosts aim to bounce back following last week’s 3-2 defeat to AGL leaders Sharjah.
With only four points separating both sides, Hertog expects another close encounter against their rivals and believes the home fans can play a vital role by being their ‘12th man’.
“Our home fans were disappointed by the result against Sharjah but we want to amend that by producing a winning performance at our own stadium,” Hertog said during his pre-match press conference.
“Our home fans are fantastic and they will be very important for this match especially as it’s an Abu Dhabi derby.
“Football is a team sport meaning that fans, players and coaches are in it together. We are all happy when we win but we are also sad when we lose.
“Our fans can give us an extra boost which will certainly help inspire my players even more to win the game. We all want to make them happy and proud and getting the victory in this Abu Dhabi derby is something that we are aiming for.”
Both teams also go into the clash almost certain in the knowledge that defeat for either would likely end their title hopes. Jazira, in fourth, are 12 points behind unbeaten Sharjah while the Boss are eight adrift with eight games remaining.
“Sharjah was a tough opponent, but Al Ain will be bigger test as they are the defending champions,” added Hertog.
Jazira will be without five players including defender Fares Juma (suspension) and attacking midfielder Leonardo (injured). However, Hertog believes there’s plenty of quality at his disposal that can help cause Al Ain problems.
“There will always be suspensions and injuries but Al Jazira have a strong, talented squad and not just 11 players. These absences are an opportunity for other players to step up and show their quality and help the team,” he said.
Meanwhile, midfielder Abdullah Ramadan believes his team-mates will give everything they’ve got to beat Al Ain.
“It will be a tough match against Al Ain,” said the 21-year-old Egyptian. “We have put the Sharjah defeat behind us and we know we have to play our best football against Al Ain which I’m sure we will do.”
Kick-off in Al Clasico is at 20:30.
An ‘Al Clasico’ contest awaits on Wednesday when rivals Al Jazira and Al Ain square off in the Arabian Gulf League.
The second-placed Boss are desperately hanging onto the coattails of surprise unbeaten leaders Sharjah, meaning a repeat of 2017/18’s entertaining 3-2 victory at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium is a must.
For Jazira, their campaign that once promised so much under Marcel Keizer has descended into a scrap for AFC Champions League football under fellow Dutchman Damien Hertog.
NOT HITTING THE MARC
Marcus Berg’s goal droughts are becoming more famous than his scoring exploits.
A 17-match spell for Sweden without finding the back of the net came either side of World Cup 2018. But life in UAE football was meant to be much easier for the hit man.
His debut campaign contained a leading 21 goals in 25 top-flight matches for double winners Al Ain. Now, he comes into Wednesday’s contest on the back of a sapping 11-match period without bagging for club and country.
The absences of star playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and coach Zoran Mamic, both poached by Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, cannot be helping.
His crisis of confidence, evident with early misses in Saturday’s 2-1 triumph against Fujairah, must be solved. With four goals in three appearances versus Jazira last term, the end could be near.
FAITH IN THE FUTURE
Jazira are poster boys for the AGL’s current age of austerity.
Rampant, unaccountable spending on flops likes Brazil midfielder Thiago Neves is a memory. They are, however, well positioned to thrive in this skinflint era.
The latest product from their fruitful academy is forward Zayed Al Ameri. His eight top-flight appearances in 2018/19 is already the most of a fledgling career.
But while goals fly in for the UAE Under-23s, he’s yet to get off the mark in the top flight. Best of luck versus the Boss.
Jazira v Al Ain should stir the senses, yet undulating fortunes for both participants mean it is 2014/15 since their clashes truly meant something.
An intriguing factor in this clash is the searing form of Arabian Gulf Cup champions Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. They sit in the third-and-final ACL qualification spot, three points behind the Boss and one point ahead of Jazira.
A strong result for either side on Wednesday will temper the threat from Dubai. Defeat will create usurpation, or abandonment.