They may be the away team, but Zoran Mamic is under no elusion that Al Hilal will be coming to Al Ain for all three points on Monday night.
Two of the biggest teams in West Asia clash at what is likely to be a raucous Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, as the AFC Champions League quarter-finals get underway.
It will be a prelude to the 2017/18 domestic season for the Boss, which kicks off with an Arabian Gulf Cup game against Hatta on September 4, with the Arabian Gulf League getting underway at home to Al Wasl on September 16.
The Crescent, meanwhile, are already two games into their Saudi Pro League campaign, and Ramon Diaz’s men sit top of the table following two wins.
They arrive in the Garden City without the services of playmakers Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, but Al Ain coach Mamic does not expect that to blunt their attacking threat.
“It is difficult to talk about the opposing team’s strategy because each coach has his own thoughts,” said the 45-year-old Croat.
“We realise that our task will not be easy and we will make sure to adopt an attacking approach to face Al Hilal, who I do not think will adopt a method of defense because they are the visiting side.”
Despite the two sides being at different stages of match fitness with Hilal two games into their season, Mamic warned the visitors that the ACL is a very different competition.
“I have told my team that this will be a new challenge and it will also be completely different from the Saudi league competition,” he said.
— Al Ain FC (@alainfcae) August 20, 2017
Mamic is likely to give a start to summer singing Marcus Berg. The Swedish striker has been hitting the back of the net with regularity during pre-season and the former Panathinaikos and Hamburg striker admits he’s settled to life well in the UAE.
“The truth is since I joined Al Ain the team has welcomed me impressively and I’ve been treated superbly by my teammates from the beginning, as well as by the coach and administrative staff,” said Berg, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Thursday.
The two sides meet in the competition for the first time since Al Ain were dumped out of the 2014 semi-finals. The damage was done in the first leg in Riyadh in which the Boss were blitzed 3-0 by a Nasser Al Shamrani-inspired Hilal.
Al Ain, who were defeated by South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in last year’s final, are looking to lift a trophy they last hoisted in 2003. Although they have never won in the current ACL era, Hilal are two-time former winners of the tournament in its previous Asian Club Championship guise – champions in 1991 and 2000.
Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz predictably singled out Al Ain maverick Omar Abdulrahman as the man his players will most fear tonight, but the Argentine has warned his men not to forget the Boss’ other talents in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final.
‘Amoory’ will be key to his team’s chances of progress in the competition – he has five goals in this year’s competition – the second most behind Persepolis’ Mehdi Taremi.
Abdulrahman is picking up from where he left off in 2016 – the 25-year-old collected a remarkable eight man-of-the-matches as he led Al Ain to the final – and Diaz says his side are wary of the frizzy-haired magician.
“Amoory is the superstar of Al Ain and has high skill, but I cannot devote all my concentration to him,” he said.
“On the contrary, my team will play putting all players under pressure.”
Diaz will be without two of his own key playmakers in Saudi Arabia international Nawaf Al Abed and Uruguay schemer Nicolas Milesi – the latter of who was taken off after 33 minutes of Hilal’s entertaining 4-3 Saudi Pro League win against Al Taawoun.
He added: “It is true we will miss Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, two good players, but we have the bench ready to prove their abilities on the pitch.”
Diaz led the Crescent to a record-extending 15th Saudi league crown last season and he wants more titles with Hilal, although he is just focusing on this first leg.
“I’m glad I succeeded in getting my league title with the club, my team is ready to bring more tournaments, but we must not get ahead of events,” he said.
“We have now 180 minutes to reach the semi-final, but Al Ain are a good team. All I can say is that our team is well prepared and everyone is focused.”
Former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic claims the criticism striker Douglas received following his penalty miss in last year’s AFC Champions League final was undeserved, and he is happy to see him back in Boss colours.
Douglas, 29, was deregistered by the club at the start of 2017 following a crisis of confidence in the wake of his critical miss during defeat to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Douglas blazed horribly over just before half time after Danilo Asprilla had been scythed down – his miss crucial as Al Ain drew the second leg of the final at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium 1-1, which saw Jeonbuk lift the trophy 3-2 on aggregate.
The club had been looking to offload the broken Brazillian, but brought him back in from the cold after he featured in just seven games after his spot kick woe.
He is now likely to start tomorrow’s quarter-final first leg tie against Al Hilal in the Garden City alongside summer arrival Marcus Berg. And the man who brought him to the UAE from Japan’s Tokushima Vortis is delighted to see him back.
“We brought Douglas to Al Ain as the best player of the Japanese League. He did not deserve that kind of pressure from the fans,” Dalic, who left Al Ain in January in the wake of their final heartache, told the-afc.com.
“He had not found a way of wrestling off that pressure and he fell under it as did the management of the club. I am very happy he is back where he belongs, in the team of Al Ain, he deserves (to be successful) as a player and also as a person.”
Dalic won the Arabian Gulf Super Cup, Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup with the Boss and also coached the Crescent to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Cup in 2013.
And after both clubs have featured in two of the last three ACL finals, the Croat feels it is time for a UAE or Saudi club to finally lift the continent’s biggest club football prize.
“It is about time the final is won by one of these teams,” he said.
“Because in the last three years all finals played were lost by clubs from this region; Al Hilal, Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai) and Al Ain. They were defeated by clubs from Australia, China and South Korea.
“Both teams have big ambitions in this tournament, last season Al Ain were in the final and Al Hilal were there three years ago. It will be a big clash.”
Dalic could not pick a winner from his two former clubs, choosing instead to sit on the fence for what is sure to be a packed house at the Hazza. But he does feel Hilal must head back to Riyadh having secured an away goal.
“Chances are 50-50, both teams have the same problem – both legs come at the very beginning of the season. Both teams have a lot of experience of what is it like to be in the AFC Champions League,” said Dalic.
“Both teams have a lot of quality players, in this match the game changer will not be an individual but the whole team as a unit.
“The stadium will be packed, so many passionate fans can only be strength, motivation and big support to the team. Al Hilal have great fans and I witnessed that a couple of times.
“It is always important in the away games to achieve at least one goal. To achieve a positive result which will give hope for the home game. This match-up is about teams of close quality and both matches will be important.”
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.