Al Ain celebrate title in carnival style

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Al Ain were crowned AGL champions for third time in four years.

A magnificent 60-point haul, just two Arabian Gulf League losses, the meanest defence, joint-most lethal attack, largest number of wins and an imposing goal difference of +43.

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There can be no doubt, Al Ain deserved their long-awaited coronation. Explosions of fire and smoke erupted when veteran defensive midfielder Helal Saeed picked up the UAE’s premier prize after a 1-1 gala final-round draw against Sharjah.

The champions’ success came not from moments such as this dead-rubber stalemate, 17-goal front man Wanderley’s snapped finish for the visitors levelling after Mohamed Abdulrahman opened the scoring on 60 minutes after quick feet were followed by a decisive low finish.

Instead, it came from the attacking midfielder’s similar effort in another narrow 1-0 triumph at Al Wasl, the resounding 4-0 dismantling of Al Wahda that ended the Clarets’ 20-match top-flight unbeaten run and when a heavily-depleted side held on for a 1-1 draw at then-reigning champions Al Ahli.

Those battles were when the medals, celebrated so joyously, were gained with three games to spare.

Even repeat absences for star pair Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman did not tell, seeing a 22nd AGL match from 26 registered in which they did not start together.

“Now it is official, we are champions,” coach Zlatko Dalic said. “I will not speak too much about the game, today is about a celebration.

 “A key game for us was against Al Wahda. Before this game, I told my players we would be champions if we won.

“Our main players missed a lot of games, but the full team showed character. They followed me and my strategy, I appreciate that.”

The only negative was that so few decided to witness the post-match sonorous drums, concussive fireworks, vibrant lights and parachuted entrance for the trophy in the flesh, a third-full Hazza bin Zayed Stadium playing host after the King agreed to give up their right to fulfil the fixture on home soil.

No-one has been able to hold a flame to Al Ain, long-term rivals Al Jazira wilting dramatically in the final weeks. A once-promising title battle was turned into a procession when Al Ain claimed 24 points from the last 30 available.

Thursday sees their President’s Cup defence begin with a trip to UAE Division 1 Group A champions, a competition Dalic is ready for.

He said: “Everyone expects more of us. Our next game is very soon in the President’s Cup, we have to forget the league and put our mind on that.”

Nothing was decided by this fixture against already-safe strugglers Sharjah. Yet, the Boss’ professional mentality which has carried them this far ensured they did not simply go through the motions.

Slovakia winger Miroslav Stoch thundered a low first-half effort against the post and Saeed neither wasted a pass or let a run go unchecked.

They appeared to be on course for a 19th win when Mohamed Abdulrahman bamboozled centre-back Mauricio Ramos by rolling the ball across his foot, before finding the bottom corner with his next motion. This did not countenance Wanderley’s acumen, a failure to clear allowing the Brazilian striker to lash in from six yards on 75 minutes.

A third AGL crown in four seasons makes this achievement seem normal. But this does a great disservice to coach Zlatko Dalic and his re-calibrated squad.

The Croatian inherited a glorious rabble upon arrival in March 2014, grandees slumming it down in eighth.

President’s Cup success was followed by the injections of youth, speed and drive in the summer market prior to a run to the AFC Champions League semi-finals.

The arrivals of Stoch and Lee Myung-joo plus recall of Jires Kembo Ekoko complimented the spine provided by UAE regular such as Mohanad Salem, Ismail Ahmed and Mohamed Ahmed.

All were together on the podium, all have played their part in a most-deserved charge to the title.

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Al Ain's Dalic calls for improved turnout

Matt Jones 9/05/2015
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Time to back the boys: Zlatko Dalic (r) is unhappy with Al Ain supporters for not turning out in big numbers for their last home game.

A large crowd is expected to pack the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday to witness Al Ain being presented with the Arabian Gulf League title, yet Zlatko Dalic has said his team need their fans at every game.

The Boss will crown a third AGL title in four years at home against Sharjah on Saturday, but the Croatian bemoaned the dearth of fans who attended their Asian Champions League game against Naft Tehran.

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Although the 4,299 supporters that attended Wednesday’s game was Al Ain’s eighth highest home attendance in 21 games in the Garden City this season, it was comfortably their lowest gate for an ACL game.

“I am very, very disappointed because (Wednesday) I expected a big celebration. My team deserved a full stadium,” said Dalic after the game.

On three occasions this season, the Hazza has seen crowds upward of 10,000 pass through the turnstiles, all for Champions League games.

The biggest was the 24,204 that saw them beat Al Hilal 2-1 in the second leg of last year’s Champions League semi-final, with 18,830 watching the 2-0 quarter-final home leg win over Al Ittihad.

In the 2015 version, 15,426 watched the 0-0 group stage draw with Al Shabab in February and the 6,872 supporters that turned up for the 1-1 draw with Pakhtakor in April was 2,000 more than Wednesday’s crowd.

The Boss’ talisman Omar Abdulrahman hopes supporters will turn out in force for today’s game and has promised them their team will put on a good show.

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Assaidi: Al Ahli up for Champions League challenge against Al Ain

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Confident: Oussama Assaidi.

The sky is the limit for Al Ahli now that historic AFC Champions League progression has put the smiles back on their faces, according to winger Oussama Assaidi.

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A late brace from striker Ahmed Khalil saw the Red Knights secure a helter-skelter 3-2 win against Tractor Sazi on Tuesday, sending them through to the knockout stages of Asia’s elite club competition for the first time.

Their remarkable progression in the final batch of Group D fixtures provided a real high point in a season of disappointment for the 2013/14 treble holders.

Domestic rivals and newly crowned Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain await in the round of 16. The sides have a heated recent history, Ahli claiming a 1-0 Arabian Gulf Super Cup triumph in March and boss Cosmin Olaroiu defecting to Dubai in controversial circumstances during summer 2013.

A gaping 21 points and six positions separate the sides in the top flight, but 26-year-old winter signing Assaidi believes the feel-good factor now flowing through Rashid Stadium will give Ahli a significant boost.

“It is nice to play against them [Al Ain],” the former Liverpool wide man said. “We will give everything against them. We are like a family team. We fight for everything.

“I have only been here for three-and-a-half months but we have won the cup and now we have qualification to the second round. It is nice to do these things for the club. Everyone is laughing again.”

Ahli appeared to be on course to crash out of the ACL once again, twice going behind bottom-placed Tractor. They found themselves 2-1 down with less than 15 minutes to go, before two perfect headers from UAE front man Khalil saw the Rashid stands erupt as their heroes progressed courtesy of a superior head-to-head record when com- pared to Uzbekistan’s Nasaf.

“It was a huge victory, because Al Ahli have never qualified for the second round [of the ACL],” Assaidi said. “It was very hard. It was like a basketball game, going forwards and back. Everyone fought until the end and we saw what we can do. We have to keep going and improving.” 

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