Marcus Berg says there is “no limit” to Al Ain’s ambitions for the new season as the Boss prepare for a mouthwatering AFC Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal next week.
The Garden City side are back in the UAE after their pre-season European tour and warmed up for Monday’s first-leg clash at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium with a routine 3-0 friendly win against Bahrain’s Al Muharraq on Tuesday – in which Berg bagged a brace.
“We are entering the final stage of preparations for the new season and are looking to launch a strong challenge in the first leg of the quarter-final against Al Hilal,” said the 30-year-old Swede, who joined from Greece’s Panathinaikos earlier this summer.
“We have a high ceiling for our ambitions in the new football season. We have great confidence in our ability to achieve a strong result on Monday that will pave the way for us to make it to the semi-finals, especially playing at home among our fans.
“That will strengthen the incentives for the players.”
The Boss return to continental action having dismantled Iran’s Esteghlal 6-2 on aggregate in the last 16 in May, while Monday’s opponents also overcame Iranian opposition in Esteghlal Khuzestan, with Ramon Diaz’s men winning 4-2 over two legs.
Berg is likely to be partnered in attack by Douglas on Monday. The Brazilian was the forgotten man in the Garden City after his confidence plummeted following a penalty miss in the second leg of the ACL final against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors last November.
The 29-year-old was set to be jettisoned but has been brought back in from the cold by Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic this summer after only featuring in seven more games during 2016/17 following the club’s ACL heartache.
He has been included in Al Ain’s renewed 30-man squad list for the remainder of the tournament, as has Japanese defender Tsukasa Shiotani, who joined the club in June.
Douglas opened the scoring for Al Ain in the behind closed doors match at the Hazza on Tuesday.
Hilal, meanwhile, came out on top of a seven-goal thriller in their second match of the new Saudi Pro League season, beating Al Taawoun 4-3 to make it two wins from two – although their porous defence might provide some hope for Al Ain.
Former Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi was on the bench for the Crescent after a summer move from Reading, but is not registered for the ACL. In what could be a further boost for the Boss, Hilal’s Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Milesi was also forced off injured in the 33rd minute.
The opening leg of the quarter-final will be played at the Hazza on Monday, kick-off at 19:50.
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As soon as Ahmed Al Mazroui saw an Al Hilal supporters’ banner when he touched down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, he knew they would be drawn as Al Ain’s opponents in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League.
And so it transpired yesterday at around 12:00 UAE time as the Boss and the Crescent were the first two names pulled out of the hat in Malaysia.
Two of the biggest clubs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the pitting of the two teams against each other will evoke memories of their 2014 ACL semi-final clash and a 3-0 drubbing handed out to Al Ain by Hilal in front of a raucous 57,000 King Fahd International Stadium that took the tie away from them.
The two giants of Gulf football will clash at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on August 21 with the second leg in Riyadh taking place two weeks later on September 11.
Al Mazroui, vice chairman of Al Ain’s board of directors, flew to the Far East as the club’s representative at the ACL last eight draw and claimed he was not surprised to be paired with Hilal, who overcame Esteghlal Khuzestan 4-2 on aggregate in the last 16 after topping Group D.
“I certainly expected us to be drawn against Al Hilal,” said Al Mazroui.
“Personally I expected to face Hilal since the moment I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur airport, when I saw a Hilal banner.”
Al Mazroui also expressed pride at the club reaching the last eight for the third time in four seasons.
“The team wants to compete for the Champions League title and have had a hard number of games on the continent which has driven us to achieve the best results and got us here,” he added.
“We have been challengers for the continental title in the last three seasons. We have potential and a strong desire to restore the continental title to our beloved country to repeat the Asian achievement we achieved in 2003.
“I think that the chances of all the teams that qualified for the quarter-finals are equal and everyone here deserves to be so.”
The two teams have clashed four times in total in the competition, in 2014 and a year earlier, with two wins apiece.
And Hilal team manager Faisal Al Farshan hopes the two-legged tie will be befitting of the rivalry between the sides.
“We are looking forward to make a match worthy of the name of the reputation of the two clubs,” he said.
“The performance of the two teams this season have won praise and appreciation off everyone.”
Iran’s Persepolis and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli will no longer play their second leg Asian Champions League quarter-finals in Qatar, the football body said Tuesday, as a diplomatic crisis sweeps the region.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen were among those to cut ties with Qatar on the grounds that Doha supported extremist groups “that aim to destabilise the region”.
The rift has triggered the closure of air space and the expulsion of diplomats.
It also means a new venue will have to be found for the matches between the two teams, scheduled for August and September.
“Iran has chosen Oman as their neutral venue. Saudi has chosen Qatar for their home match but now with the new development, Saudi Arabia has to propose a new (neutral) venue,” the AFC’s secretary general Windsor John told reporters.
John said the new neutral venue could be identified over the next two weeks. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran play matches at home.
Persepolis spokesman Pendar Khomarlou told AFP the team was unaffected by the Gulf diplomatic bust-up, the biggest to hit the region in years.
“Saudi and Qatar have political problems. Saudi may choose Abu Dhabi. We have no problems with playing in Abu Dhabi since we have a lot of supporters living there,” he said.
He also said the four teams that could make it to the semis were Persepolis, Guangzhou Evergrande, Al Ain and Kawasaki Frontale.