In times of strife, how lucky Al Ain are to be able to turn to Omar Abdulrahman.
With the score goalless past the 70-minute mark, the Boss were running out of inspiration during a must-win match in Group D. Fail to claim the three points and the 2003 winners could only dream of reaching the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League after two painful opening losses.
Al Ahli Jeddah were obstinate opponents, worthy of their place atop the domestic Saudi rankings. Something special was required to breathe life into the Arabian Gulf League champions’ continental campaign.
The jewel of UAE football stepped up to provide it. As he always does.
The playmaker had served warning in the first-half with a free-kick which rattled the crossbar. Second time around, his aim was truer.
A deceiving effort from edge of box rattled in off the near post, sparking scenes of jubilation throughout the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Ignition, at last.
The Boss’ kicked off as one of only two sides in the 32-team competition without a point to their name. The pair of defeats to Qatar’s El Jaish had given them their worst-ever start in Asia’s premier competition.
In Ahli, the opportunity to get back in the mix appeared a limited one. Their opponents top the Saudi Professional League, rebounding with a pair of victories after their 51-match unbeaten run ended late last month.
They had also not been defeated on UAE soil since 2008, winning three and drawing two matches.
With the stakes so high, a nervy start was to be expected.
As in the reversals to El Jaish, Al Ain controlled proceedings without being good enough in either box.
A set-piece looked the likeliest source of joy and Omar Abdulrahman thundered against the woodwork with goalkeeper Yasser Al Mosailem rooted to the spot.
UAE centre-backs Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed were relishing the physical battle with star visitng striker Omar Al Somah.
But after the break, the Syrian appeared to be edging his way in front. An acrobatic volley after a Khalid Essa fumble hit the crossbar on the hour mark, while his shot into the side-netting caused panic.
The game appeared to be steadily slipping away from the hosts. In a scene reminiscent of his intervention in February’s triumph against Al Wahda, a set-piece was to provide salvation on 71 minutes after substitute Danilo Asprilla was felled.
Buoyed by the breakthrough, the Boss exerted control.
The final whistle saw relieved boss Zlatko Dalic pump the air and his players race to embrace their hero.
A turning point in Al Ain’s season had been reached.
El Jaish boss Sabri Lamouchi is happy to concentrate on the AFC Champions League after seeing their domestic dream ended.
The ex-France midfielder’s side saw runaway Qatar Stars League leaders Al Rayyan clinch the title with five matches to spare.
In contrast, the Soldiers have a tight grip on Group D after a pair of opening triumphs against Al Ain and Lamouchi wants to utilise this momentum tonight against Uzbekistan’s Nasaf.
He said: “After Al Rayyan sealed the league title, our concentration now is on the AFC Champions League. We are in a good position in the competition, but that doesn’t mean we have secured our qualification.”
In East Asia, the Group F pacesetters meet in China as former Brazil coach Mano Menezes’ Shandong Luneng host FC Seoul.
Shandong sit second on goal difference because of the incredible scoring exploits of striker Adriano, who has struck seven times in two games for their South Korean opponents.
“Both teams have done pretty well and now are ranked at first and second,” said Menezes. “I think the game is going be a very tight one.
“We won our Chinese Super League game a few days ago, but had paid the price of having two injured players – Walter Montillo and Zhao Mingjian.”
Group H leaders Pohang Steelers are fully aware of the threat of Sydney FC, with coach Choi Jin-cheul expecting a tough examination.
He said: “Sydney are a good team. They are tough defensively and good going forward, so we have to be careful.”
Boss Zlatko Dalic is convinced Al Ain will rise to the challenge presented by giants Al Ahli Jeddah tonight and not crack under the pressure of salvaging their AFC Champions League-campaign.
The 2014 semi-finalists lost both opening matches against Qatar’s El Jaish to sit bottom of Group D.
This means a positive result is a must against fearsome opponents who sit top of the Saudi Professional League and have rebounded in style after they surrendered a 51-match unbeaten run in their domestic competition last month.
“Losing the first two games in the AFC Champions League was unexpected for everyone, so there is no room for any other errors during the next phase,” said Dalic.
“Personally, I expect the competition to be very strong against Al Ahli Jeddah who are the leaders of the Saudi Professional League.
“In the last two games of the Arabian Gulf League (wins against Al Jazira and Bani Yas), we succeeded in recording seven goals.
“I think that the team has regained confidence.
“However, we are required to focus more on the defensive aspects and work to avoid individual mistakes.
“I respect Al Ahli, but my confidence will still be high about our aspirations and my players.
“We are required to win and show the best we have in front of the Saudi league leaders.”
The task for the Boss is daunting after they recorded their worst-ever start to an ACL campaign.
The visitors to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium have not lost an ACL game in the UAE since they were felled by Al Wahda in 2008, while in Omar Al Somah they possess one of the most imposing strikers in the Middle East.
The 26-year-old’s impressive 15-goal return this term has propelled his club to top spot in Saudi Arabia.
He will be expected to prey on the nerves of the Arabian Gulf League champions and gain a result which will see former Tottenham Hotspur boss Christian Gross’ men climb up from third into the qualification spots.
“We came to win in Al Ain and the team is in the highest degree of readiness to face them,” said Syria international Al Somah.
“We have the desire to earn a big win and determination to achieve our goal, with all due respect to our competitor’s strong team.
“We are well aware that our task in front of us will not be easy, especially in their country.
“We will deal with confrontation like the rest of the other games and we will work to win.
“We expect a strong result and to get the points, as Al Ahli can beat any competitor.”