Henk ten Cate’s fine work at Al Wahda could gain tangible reward on Tuesday night when his troops aim to end a 12-year absence from the AFC Champions League’s knockout stages.
Avoid defeat against Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent at Al Nahyan Stadium and progression from Group B will have been earned, with a game to spare. Some turnaround after the same side handed out a 2-0 humbling in March’s opener.
Lokomotiv, however, must prevail if they are to retain slender hopes of advancing from third place. Here are the talking points:
REVENGE AND HISTORY
The Champions League has provided a plethora of chastening experiences for the Clarets.
Since a 3-1 aggregate loss to Iran’s Sepahan in 2007’s semi-finals, five group-stage exits and 2015’s epic play-off defeat to Qatar’s Al Sadd have been incurred. In the previous two editions, they finished a distant and dispiriting bottom of their section.
Enter Ten Cate. The Al Jazira icon answered December’s emergency call from across Abu Dhabi.
Under him, a 4-1 thrashing of Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad ended their shameful run of seven losses in eight ACL matches. The memorable double-header against Qatar’s Al Rayyan – the latest a 4-3 win that contained a super hat-trick for Brazilian forward Leonardo – then added a vital six points.
Derail Lokomotiv this midweek and a cherished round-of-16 berth is assured.
A WORD FOR LEONARDO
Arabian Gulf League clubs are rarely this adept in the transfer market.
Last August’s free transfer pick-up of Leonardo has become the bargain of the decade.
Curiously unwanted after a solid season at Al Ahli Jeddah, the 27-year-old burst into life following Ten Cate’s hire.
Against a firm Lokomotiv, his guile and craft will be essential.
Lokomotiv sit an unfamiliar second in the infant Uzbekistan Super League, but do not discount them.
The clubs also met in 2018’s group stage. Lokomotiv prevailed with an aggregate 9-1 scoreline.
Suspension for 56-cap veteran centre-back Islom Tukhtakhodjaev, however, acts as a dampener.
Complications abound when Saudi Professional League behemoth Al Hilal welcome UAE equivalents Al Ain to Riyadh in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Uncomfortable ends to this term are ongoing, domestically, for clubs set to relinquish their top-flight crowns. The similarities, however, do not extend to continental competition.
Monday’s hosts at King Saud University Stadium are one victory away from escaping an exacting Group C, with a game to spare. In contrast, the winless – and severely depleted – Boss sit bottom and are already virtually eliminated.
CHAMUSCA’S FREE HIT
A familiar face has not survived.
Croatian supremo Zoran Mamic departed the Garden City in late January for Hilal and oversaw March’s 1-0 win at his former employers. But humiliation on a historic scale to Al Taawoun in last month’s King’s Cup semi-finals necessitated an early dismissal.
Last Monday witnessed temporary replacement Pericles Chamusca lose his debut, 2-0 against the same opponent, and cede control of the SPL’s title race to loathed neighbours Al Nassr.
How the Brazilian will welcome Monday’s relative free-hit…
BOSS WILL FEEL BLUE
Al Ain are a car crash that keeps on skidding.
The highs of December’s runners-up spot at the Club World Cup now seem an illusion. Mamic’s successor, Juan Carlos Garrido, is enduring a seven-match winless run.
A heavy loss to guarantee group-stage elimination for the first time since 2013 seems inevitable. Even the return of disciplinary outcast Caio – a Brazilian forward seemingly bound for Benfica – offers little realistic hope.
OTAYF TO EASE BACK IN
The time has surely come to thrust Saudi Arabia artisan Abdullah Otayf back into the XI after injury.
The 26-year-old played both, dispiriting, second halves against Taawoun off the substitutes’ bench.
Al Ain, now, are an ideal opponent for him.
There is strength to test himself against in likely opposite numbers Ahmed Barman, Tongo Doumbia and Amer Abdulrahman. But not too much to risk confidence.
He’ll be a treasured asset for the knockouts, if handled correctly.
Unbeaten Sharjah are feeling the “pressure” after their stumbles towards a long-awaited Arabian Gulf League title success continued with a 2-2 draw versus bottom-placed Dibba Al Fujairah, according to boss Abdulaziz Al Anbari.
The King recorded their third top-flight draw on the spin when Moroccan midfielder Driss Fettouhi slotted in a 54th-minute penalty for Friday’s visitors to Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium. A bullet header from UAE centre-back Shaheen Abdulrahman and 18-goal Brazilian striker Welliton’s one-on-one finish had previously seen the hosts rebound from Diogo Acosta’s early opener.
Even amid this downturn, victory at mid-table Al Wasl next Saturday will guarantee the trophy for the first time since 1995/96 regardless of what second-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club do at Al Nasr 24 hours prior.
“Thank God for the result,” said Al Anbari, whose troops are six points ahead with three games left. “We wished for the best, but we entered the game poorly and that did not help.
“I do not blame the players as the pressure on the team is very large.
“This match should be quickly forgotten and the focus must be put on upcoming matches, which will be difficult.
“It is possible that the team has been influenced by the talk from the street in terms of Sharjah settling the league. At the same time, the pressure on everyone is great and this is normal for a team that has not won the competition for many years.
“The final metres are always difficult and the players are making great efforts. I hope to be stronger and we all need to unite at this stage.”
Sharjah had belied their status as regular relegation battlers with a sensational start to 2018/19 that included seven wins and three draws in their opening 10 fixtures.
The likes of troubled holders Al Ain, youthful Al Jazira and improving Shabab Al Ahli have not been able to live with them.
Al Anbari selflessly took the blame for their recent stutters.
He said: “The team’s level of decline is mainly borne by the technical staff. I thank the players for their early season form.
“I am optimistic that the negative results will not continue and that the team is able to return to victories.”
No club in the decade-long professional era have ever gone undefeated before.