The Blue Wave have headed to Doha for Wednesday’s quarter-final, first leg determined to extend their first-ever excursion into the competition’s knockout stages.
Talented opponents who beat Al Ain twice in Group D and bettered neighbours Lekhwiya during the round of 16 await them at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
“It’s a very important match,” said Jovanovic. “A very difficult team and tough game for both.
“It’s the first time we reach the quarters. We will try to reach the semis. El Jaish is an excellent team. They showed this in the earlier stage. They showed that against Lekhwiya, also. We will do our best to go to the next round.”
The summer recess has allowed both combatants to reshape. Nasr have added Morocco playmaker Abdelaziz Barrada and Sharjah striker Wanderley among others, while the Soldiers’ headline business was forced upon them.
Ex-Barcelona and Roma centre midfielder Seydou Keita, 36, will be the star attraction in Qatar after he was snapped up following an ill-timed injury to deadly centre forward Abderrazak Hamdallah.
Jaish boss Sabri Lamouchi was looking forward to seeing his exalted new signing in action.
He said: “I can say we are happy and proud to play the quarter-finals. Nobody could have imagined to see El Jaish in this position.
“Before we talk about Seydou Keita, I want to remind you that he is here because Hamdallah is injured. I want to wish him well. We are waiting for him to return.
“It will be [Keita’s] first official game. We need his experience for tomorrow and in the Qatar Stars League. Of course, it is a big name – hopefully he will do well.”
Nasr have shown remarkable composure to get this far. They edged into second place in Group A ahead of Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, prior to holding on during a heated second leg at Iran’s Tractor Sazi to make the last eight.
Right-back Ahmed Al Yassi was confident of a acquiring a positive result to take back to the UAE for the return leg in Dubai on September 14.
He said: “We did a good preparation. We trained in Dubai and in Poland for 14 days. New players have joined us. We hope they add value to our team. We have also trained in high temperature.”
All things considered, Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic could not have expected better than this.
As he was at pains to make clear in the preamble, the Croatian had been forced to throw a side together for Tuesday night’s season-opening AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg against Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Denied any meaningful time with his seven-strong UAE contingent, there could be few complaints with the goalless draw which followed against dark horses who sit atop the ongoing Uzbek Oliy League and have suffered just one loss in 32 games during 2016.
Indeed, it could have been worse for the undercooked Boss. Brazilian striker Douglas and Colombian flyer Danilo Asprilla were more hindrance than help, while winger Sardor Mirzayev was guilty of two woeful misses for the sharp visitors to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Rather than a fight to gain dominance, this was about survival. More chances at the other end will need to be created at Bunyodkor Stadium by the rusty 2003 winners next month to proceed.
Al Ain were forced to feel their way into the tie against well-honed opponents in the punishing 42C summer heat.
A lack of time on the training pitch ensured new relationships were being formed at the Hazza, with the failure to seal an early release of the UAE players from a month-long training camp meaning they had only spent 10 days with the rest of the squad.
Summer buy Caio flickered into life, his proclivity to cut inside from the left leading to several fizzed efforts which were well smothered by Uzbekistan No2 goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov.
Centre midfielder Amer Abdulrahman – finally extracted from Bani Yas in July – was not quite yet on a wavelength with South Korea’s Lee Myung-joo, which was no shock considering his lengthy international commitments ahead of next month’s World Cup 2018 qualifiers.
One welcome constant was Omar Abdulrahman. The UAE superstar was cut above throughout, expertly finding space in-between the lines of visiting coach Andrey Miklyaev’s 4-1-4-1 formation.
A trademark twist of his feet and incisive throughball played in 18-goal January purchase Douglas, but – not for the only time – the Brazilian’s propensity to miscontrol frustratingly appeared.
Lokomotiv had stifled Al Nasr on their last trip to the UAE and they were restrictive opponents once again. Timur Kapadze expertly anchored as the sole defensive midfielder, while 33-year-old two-time Asian Footballer of the Year Server Djeparov oozed class despite the ravages of time.
Indeed, the best chance of first half was volleyed wildly over by Mirzayev on 25 minutes when picked out in the box.
A match of tight margins continued after the break. A spill from UAE shot stopper Khalid Essa caused consternation just before the hour mark, while it was left from 10 minutes from time for his side to truly threaten.
The electric Caio deftly placed a ball into space for the onrushing Asprilla. But the wide man’s characteristic lack of composure re-appeared when clean through as his low shot was easily repelled by the grateful Nesterov.
This wastefulness should have been instantly punished by a valuable away goal, Mirzayev again firing high into the stands when perfectly positioned.
Sting in the tail avoided, the Boss will need a repeat of their heroics at Iran’s Zob Ahan in the previous round to advance.
Images by Christopher Whiteoak
With established giants Guangzhou Evergrande having made an early exit, however, the chance is there for a new side from the emerging Chinese Super League to make an impact on a continental stage.
As the money flows into the CSL, it is likely sides will reach the latter stages of the ACL on an increasingly regular basis.
However, with two teams in the quarter-finals for the first-time, this is very much unchartered territory.
In Sven-Goran Eriksson and Felix Magath, Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng could not wish for more experienced coaches.
But for majority of the players, a fresh frontier awaits.
While CSL spending grows, the K League has continued to make cutbacks yet their sides still excel in the ACL. In recent years, a Korean side has invariably reached the final with both FC Seoul (2013) and Jeonbuk Motors (2011) making it.
There are storylines aplenty, with a narrative of K League tradition against the CSL’s nouveau-riche difficult to avoid.
With the star-studded ranks at Shandong boosted by Papiss Cisse and Graziano Pelle this summer and Hulk arriving at SIPG, the two Chinese participants have spared no expense.However, with neither setting the world alight in domestic action – as Shandong fight an unlikely relegation battle – there is plenty of reason for optimism for their more-settled opponents.
Jeonbuk Motors v Shanghai SIPG
If it were a game decided by past pedigree, 2006 winners Jeonbuk would advance with ease past their ACL debutant opponents.
However, SIPG’s spending means they demand respect.
Unfortunately for the Chinese side, playmaker Dario Conca limped out of his side’s game this past weekend and has been ruled out of the tie. Record signing Hulk is also sidelined.
With both sides at full strength it would perhaps have been Shanghai heading into the clash as favourites, however the advantage has now very much swung in the favour of their experienced opponents.
FC Seoul v Shandong Luneng
Despite a woeful league campaign, Shandong find themselves in the last four of the East Asian-side of the Champions League but will face Asian royalty in FC Seoul.
A big summer of transfer market activity saw the arrivals of Cisse – who is not registered for the ACL – and Pelle, but results have failed to noticeably pick up. Magath has a major re-building job to do.
Seoul snuck through versus Urawa Red Diamonds in May, but were dominant when the two quarter-finalists met in the groups.
Shandong have made many alterations since those clashes, including Magath’s arrival. But Seoul will hope their continued stability under impressive young manager Choi Yong-Soo wins the day.
Christopher Atkins is a player representative and registered intermediary for RWMG Sports, based in Guangzhou, China.