Al Ain coach Ivan Leko has been encouraged by his side’s efforts and performances in pre-season so far, although the Croat knows he will not gain a complete perspective of his squad until every player is available.
The Boss drew 0-0 with Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh in Slovenia on Tuesday in what the former Club Brugge boss has described as a beneficial summer – even though it has been disrupted by playing only two games thus far as their second was abandoned due to cold weather.
Algerian winger Abderrahmane Meziane and Togo forward Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba made their first appearances for the club, but have only been with their new team-mates for a matter of days.
And Leko confirmed that the players must continue to work during this crucial period of preparation ahead of the new season.
“More training is needed to achieve the required level of togetherness,” said Leko, who replaced Juan Carols Garrido, the Spaniard struggling after the departure of Zoran Mamic midway through last season.
“The main objective of the friendly matches is to see how players apply for training in such confrontations and I have felt good returns from everyone.
“It is certain that the lack of international players joining the start of the preparation period, in addition to Laba and Meziane only joining a few days ago, is a factor that leads us to redouble our efforts. Because our actual training begins when the team is complete.
“And we will work together in a strong and serious way to achieve our goals in the new season.”
Veteran defender Ismail Ahmed, meanwhile, is similarly encouraged by what he has seen in camp and during the games so far.
“We came out with the desired gains from the friendly,” said the UAE international, who celebrated his 36th birthday at the beginning of July.
“The game was good and gave everyone a good boost, especially as the second friendly match was not completed due to weather conditions accompanied by cold weather. The encounter was both technical and physical.
“I would like to thank all my colleagues and the coach and I wish success to all of us in achieving the required gains during this important stage of preparation for the new season.
“I believe that the team’s performance indicators are positive so far and by the end of the pre-season period, I hope that the team reaches the required readiness for the new season ahead.”
Leko has a big task ahead of him as the Boss look to arrest the slide that set in last term, resulting in a fourth-placed finish in the Arabian Gulf League and a group stage exit from the AFC Champions League.
But the summer has been positive in terms of business – with prolific Brazilian forward Caio Canedo the standout acquisition from fellow UAE side Al Wasl.
Both Laba and Meziane were pursued by Egyptian titans Al Ahly, while midfielders Mohamed Jamal and Mohammed Helal have joined from of Al Jazira and Ajman respectively.
Al Ain defender Mohammed Fayez has hailed the early impact of new coach Ivan Leko, insisting the Coatian is already proving to be a “valuable asset” as the Boss look to bounce back from a disappointing 2018/19 campaign.
The Garden City side enjoyed a splendid first half of the campaign, marked by making the final of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December – where they were beaten 4-1 by Spanish giants Real Madrid.
But their form fell away drastically after the Arabian Gulf League season resumed following a staggered campaign due to the Club World Cup and January’s Asian Cup. They fell out of title contention and eventually finished fourth – only Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s triumph in the President’s Cup final provided them with an AFC Champions League lifeline as they will now participate in the play-off rounds.
The Boss are currently in Europe on pre-season and defender Fayez has been impressed with the new man in charge.
“He has set up the team’s programme to boost further the strength of the Al Ain team to be able to clinch more titles,” said the 29-year-old full-back of the former Croatia international midfielder.
“He has great charisma and deals well with all players. You can tell that he has a clear imprint in enhancing all the players’ potentials, and this is what we have realised since day one.
“I can assure you that he is a valuable asset to the team and I do not doubt that, with him, we will be able to achieve the desired goals.
“I am highly confident that our loyal fans will never let us walk alone and hope together we will celebrate winning new titles.”
Sebastian Tagliabue believes exciting young Al Wahda attacker Yahya Al Ghassani has the ability to play for Portuguese giants Porto or Benfica – but stressed how key it is for him to fully prove himself in the UAE first.
Argentine striker Tagliabue was hugely impressed by the 21-year-old last season at Al Nahyan Stadium. He had floated around several Arabian Gulf League clubs before signing a one-year deal with the Clarets ahead of the 2018/19 season, impressing so much he instantly earned an extension until 2023 after just a handful of games.
It has led to widespread speculation of a move this summer, with several Bundesliga and Premier League sides registering their interest in the winger.
Veteran forward Tagliabue says that while Al Ghassani might well yearn to reach the top level sooner rather than later, he must fully develop his skill-set and establish himself as a force in the AGL – Al Ghassani’s second half of last season was pockmarked by injury.
When asked if he would advise Al Ghassani to remain with the Abu Dhabi club for one more year, Tagliabue told Sport360: “No, for Yahya, two more years, minimum. Because this year he has to take his confidence and go forward.
“Last season he spent six months injured so this year he will try to play without getting injured. This year is a transitional year for him. Then, if nothing happens, he’ll need one more year to be brave and strong and then he can try to move to a higher level.
“I think everything is coming at the right time for him. If he gets injured now, like last season, he will learn about the injuries and how to come back, to recover, that’s what he learnt last season.
“If the possibility comes again in two years to go to the Premier League or Bundesliga, or Spain, he will be right.”
Technically gifted and possessing bags of pace, Al Ghassani netted a debut goal in a 6-2 thrashing of Ittihad Kalba on the opening day of the AGL season last August and went on to make 24 appearances in total. However, a recurring hamstring problem in the second half of the campaign limited him to just seven matches in 2019.
Current Wahda and UAE defender Hamdan Al Kamali was the last high-profile player from the club to move to Europe, signing a six-month loan deal with Ligue 1 giants Lyon in January 2012, when he was 22.
It didn’t work out for the centre-back, who failed to make an appearance and was subsequently loaned to Maltese side Valletta the following season where he scored two goals in 28 league appearances before returning home.
Despite advising him to stay put for now, however, Tagliabue is confident Al Ghassani has the talent to shine at a top team in a lower profile European league, or at a smaller team in Spain, England, Germany or Italy.
“It’s difficult to say,” said Tagliabue when asked what level his young team-mate can play at.
“But I think he could play in a normal team in Spain. Not Atletico Madrid, not Sevilla. But a little lower or maybe a big team in Portugal; Porto, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon.
“But he has to show a high level. If you speak seriously we have never seen the highest level of Yahya here yet. But a smaller or middle team in a top league like England or a big team in a lower league, like Portugal, let’s say Holland. It could be both.
“In this kind of country he could play in a good team because he has the quality. In Spain, England, Italy, Germany it would be a small team.”
Breaking down barriers is already nothing new to Al Ghassani, born to an Emirati mother and a father who holds Tanzanian and Omani passports, he made history by becoming the first son of a non-Emirati father to play in the AGL outside the four-man quota reserved for foreigners last term.
⚽️ 31/8 Yahya Al Ghassani scores on his #AGLeague debut— Arabian Gulf League (@AGLeague_EN) September 9, 2018
✍️ 8/9 Al Ghassani renews his contract with @AlWahdaFCC
⚽️ 9/9 Al Ghassani scores on his first start at the #AGCup
But Tagliabue – who is himself going into his seventh season with the Clarets following a 2013 move from Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab Riyadh – insists consistency and patience are key.
“In the beginning I say to him, when I first heard about this and when he first came to the club, it’s good to play here two or three years and then you can try and go somewhere else,” said the 34-year-old, who overtook Ghana icon Asamoah Gyan as the AGL’s top-scoring foreign player ever last season.
“You have to feel and show yourself that you can play somewhere two-three years at a high level. It will give you the confidence to play away. But if you always try to move, it’s not good for you.
“At the same time if he goes to train with players at a much higher level, he will grow up. He’s a very good player but I told him he has to play in order to become a complete player.
“He has good skills, speed, a lot of good things but he has to do it consistently. The last six months he had a few injuries but he is doing really good things and this year I think he will be really good.”