Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic is convinced he and his players can withstand the pressure tonight’s AFC Champions League round-of-16, second leg against Al Ahli will heap on them.
The Boss come into their final match of an otherwise-triumphant campaign under the microscope after their President’s Cup defence ended at the quarter-final stage on Saturday.
Ibrahima Toure’s 89th-minute winner for Al Nasr saw a quest to add to the Arabian Gulf League crown end in frustrating fashion and raised question marks about their continental destiny after a cagey goalless opener registered in Dubai last week.
When asked whether this deciding match at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium had the most riding on it of any Dalic has faced during his successful 15-month spell in charge, he replied assuredly: “For Al Ain, it has been 11 months of pressure, every day is pressure.
Hard game behind us, it is all in our hands, we have the strength and spirit to win!
— Zlatko Dalic (@DalicZlatko) May 21, 2015
“I didn’t have any day without pressure – it is a big club, everyone expects results.
“I’m ready and my players are ready for this pressure. I told you before, my goals were to win the championship and proceed to the last eight in Asia.
“But this is our job, every time pressure and everybody expects a win.
“Inshallah, if we pass this game I’ll be very happy because I’ll know my team, me and my staff had a fantastic season.
“But this is no reason to play nervous. My players must play a smart game.
“I’m not afraid for anything. I repeat many times, I trust my players.
“They understand what this game means for us. They will be ready – I know we’ll play a fantastic game, will do everything and finish with a good result.
“But believe me, this game will be for us the most important game this season.”
— Matt Monaghan (@mattmonaghan360) May 25, 2015
Al Ain had stormed through the 2014/15 season, previously.
They finished nine points clear of second-placed Al Jazira in the top flight and own the only unbeaten record in the 2015 ACL after they topped a tough-looking Group B.
Dalic oversaw a disciplined display during last Wednesday’s meeting at Rashid Stadium, leaving the tie delicately balanced.
These achievements have been amplified by a draining fixture list which began with a run to last year’s ACL semi-finals and ended with seven matches in May across three competitions.
“It will be the last game in the season for my team,” the Croatian said.
“Really, it has been a very, very long season for us, difficult to keep high level all season in which for 11 months we play a high level.
“I hope my players, my team will find power, will find energy to play same style and same level.
“We have done a hard job. We have a hard job left.
“I’m sure my team will give everything. We have positive result from first game, 0-0.
“We played four games against Al Ahli this season, each game was very tough, strong, tight. Two times draw, one time won, one lost – I expect also same style, same fight.
“0-0 is a positive result, we don’t have any reason to be nervous, to play quickly, play fast.
“We have to play with a good defence and be careful.
“I’m sure my team will create some chances, but we have to take care about the counter-attack and about our own goal.”
Star player Omar Abdulrahman’s heartache was evident as he collapsed to the ground upon the final whistle at Al Maktoum Stadium last weekend.
He was still aware of the upset when discussing motivation for the clash against perennial rivals, Ahli.
He said: “For sure, it is a very, very important game for everyone at the club. We have a lot of respect for Ahli, and Inshallah the result will be on our side.
“It is not just the fans who are upset – we as players and everyone else at the club are upset.
“We hoped we would go further in the President’s Cup. But it didn’t happen.”
Third time is the charm for Arabian Gulf League outfit Bani Yas as they look set to complete a long-awaited move for Australia star Mark Milligan.
Milligan, 29, has seen two previous offers to head to the Sky Blues – who finished eight this term – fall apart in 2013 and 2014. But this is set to change in the coming days, with the club convinced they have finally got their man.
The defensive midfielder featured prominently on a list of players recently submitted to the board of directors, with the A$1 million (Dh2.88m) release clause in his contract at A-League champions Melbourne Victory being met.
Reports from Fox Sports in his home country stated yesterday the 39-times capped Socceroo was “seriously considering a lucrative move to the Middle East” on a “life-changing” two-year deal.
Milligan turned down Bani Yas in June 2013, with the Abu Dhabi-outfit pulling out of negotiations in January 2014 after falling to agree a transfer fee. The former Shanghai Shenhua and JEF United player, however, seemed open to making another foreign move this summer when he spoke to Australian newspaper Herald Sun after Saturday’s 3-0 A-League grand final thrashing of Sydney FC.
“It’s like anything, you always want to challenge yourself, whether it be at a professional level, sporting level or life in general,’’ Milligan said.
“Not that I’ve heard of (clubs being interested). Obviously I’ll only hear of things late on in the piece if there is anything.
“I’m very happy at Melbourne, we’ve had a great year, a very successful year. I’ve made it very clear that my family is enjoying it here, but you never know what’s around the corner.
“I want to make sure I’m in the best place to continue playing football and enjoying it and make sure that I’m playing for as long as possible.’’
Milligan is expected to fly to the UAE in the coming days to complete the formalities to join as the Asian player in boss Luis Garcia’s four-player foreign quota.
— Sport360° (@Sport360) May 25, 2015
This is likely to be combined with his Socceroos duties, Ange Postecoglou’s side spending a week-long training camp in Dubai ahead of their opening World Cup 201 qualifier at Kyrgyzstan on June 16.
Milligan has enjoyed a stellar few months at club and international level. He was a key performer for Australia as they swept to Asian Cup glory – beating UAE in the semi-final – on home soil in January, then skippering Victory to dominant domestic success after they finished top of the 2014/15 A-League table and triumphed in the grand final.
His imminent arrival is likely to mean Swedish-Palestinian forward Imad Khalili’s short stay at Bani Yas ended with him missing the only penalty during Saturday’s President’s Cup quarter-final shootout loss to Al Shabab.
Al Nasr loanee Pablo Hernandez has set his sights on securing both AFC Champions League qualification through a President’s Cup triumph and ensuring he earns a permanent deal to enjoy the fruits of his labour next season.
Hernandez, 30, joined on a temporary basis in January from Qatar’s Al Arabi until the end of the 2014/15 campaign. An option to buy is in the contract, the winger striving to see this exercised.
The former Valencia, Swansea City and Spain star played a defining role in Saturday’s 1-0 triumph against President’s Cup holders Al Ain, setting up striker Ibrahima Toure on 89 minutes to fire the Blue Wave into a semi-final against neighbours Al Shabab next weekend.
Hernandez declared his desire to see Ivan Jovanovic’s troops push on and secure a double after January’s Arabian Gulf Cup success, which would see fourth-placed Arabian Gulf League outfit Al Wahda drop out of Asia’s elite club tournament.
He said: “Sometimes, the league is more difficult as there are too many games. It is a long competition, we could only finish in fifth.
“Now, it is a good opportunity for us [in the President’s Cup]. We know if we win this, we go into the AFC Champions League. “This is very, very important for the club. It is a huge chance for us.
“I think next year, this will be very good for the club. Hopefully, we can fight for the league next year. Now, we think of the President’s Cup.”
Hernandez has notched three goals and four assists in 12 AGL appearances for Nasr. “I want to be here,” the four-times capped La Roja player said.
“After we finish the season, I will talk with the club. I know the club is happy [with me] and I am happy,” he added.