Zoran Mamic has called on Al Ain to show their fighting spirit as they prepare to enter the lion’s den of Al Hilal’s King Fahd International Stadium looking for the result that will earn them an AFC Champions League semi-final berth.
The scores are evenly poised between two of Asia’s club heavyweights after a 0-0 draw at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium three weeks ago. It was advantage Al Ain after the game after the Boss had played for most of the second half down to 10 men following centre-back Mohanad Salem’s foolish sending-off.
Now Mamic’s men have to negotiate the cauldron-like atmosphere of Hilal’s stronghold in Riyadh – a stadium that holds an intimidating 68,752 fans.
“The game is one of the strongest football matches that Al Ain will have faced in recent years, especially since it combines two big teams,” said the Croat.
“We are required to provide a strong performance and show the spirit of fighting while also displaying high concentration and keeping possession of the ball and not giving any cheap opportunities to the opponents.
“Our goal in the last game was to win but it is not easy to get a positive result, especially after the red card. We will enter the second half of the tie and look forward to achieving a strong result that ensures our qualification for the semi-finals.”
With Salem suspended, fellow UAE defender Ismail Ahmed will come into the centre of defence. The veteran came on after Salem’s dismissal in the first leg, although he probably featured ahead of schedule following knee surgery in the summer.
Hilal coach Ramon Diaz, meanwhile, will be without midfield dynamo Salman Al Faraj, but is hoping the King Fahd International Stadium crowd will be in fine voice to provide a hostile atmosphere.
“We are fully ready for (the) match despite missing some players but we worked very well and have many solutions including the most important solution which is the Al Hilal fans,” the Argentine said.
Diaz began his press conference by praising the Saudi national team after their 1-0 victory the previous week against Japan, which earned them qualification to next year’s World Cup in Russia.
He added: “It will mean the participation of many players of Al Hilal, but the players have professional and good mentalities to forget the celebrations after this achievement and concentrate on the Asian competition with the club.”
Zoran Mamic has described striker Douglas as a “really strong character” after fighting back to prominence at Al Ain following his penalty miss which contributed to defeat in last year’s AFC Champions League final.
The 29-year-old blazed horribly over just before half time in the second-leg of the November’s ACL final after Danilo Asprilla had been scythed down – his miss led to a 1-1 draw at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium that night with South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, who went on to lift the ACL title with a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Douglas was deregistered by the club at the start of 2017 following a crisis of confidence in the wake of his critical miss and he featured in just seven more games during last season after that November 26 encounter.
He was expected to be jettisoned from the Garden City in the summer, but Mamic instead decided to keep him, along with fellow Brazilian Caio – who had a fine debut campaign – while adding another striker in Swede Marcus Berg and Japan defender Tsukasa Shiotani to the Boss’ ranks in the off-season.
Douglas started Al Ain’s goalless ACL quarter-final first leg draw with Al Hilal on Monday – nearly nine months to the day since his and the club’s final heartache.
He saw an effort harshly chalked off for offside in the first half while Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al Maiouf brilliantly denied him what would have been a deserved goal after the interval as he caught the eye.
And Mamic was delighted to see him welcomed back by an electric Hazza crowd.
“He was today one of the best Al Ain players on the pitch. He played very good and played for the team. I was really happy with him,” Mamic said of Douglas, who was substituted to rapturous applause four minutes from time.
“He is a very strong person to survive something like that. But this is football, this is life. Bigger players than Douglas have missed penalties and he feels support from the coaching staff, from the players and now also today, I saw the fans were very happy with him. He will be great for us.”
Asked post-match if the striker – who otherwise has a fine record of 27 goals in 47 games for the Boss – had withdrawn due to criticism following that penalty miss, Mamic said: “No, he’s not nervous.”
He added: “He’s quiet and he fights, he runs, he works hard. But you can kick him and he won’t comment. He is a really, really good character.”
Along with Douglas, compatriot Caio also impressed in the opening leg, and Mamic counts himself lucky to have both players under his command.
“I’m very lucky as a coach of this team as I have two Brazilians in Caio and Douglas, but they are not like normal Brazilians,” he said.
“They are not like Brazilians in mentality, they are professional like Germans, both of them, and I’m very happy with them.”
Al Ain will take the chance to fight another day as their 10-men held on at home after seeing centre-back Mohanad Salem sent off.
The scoreline reads 0-0 but this was anything but a dour draw as both sides had goals ruled out while two of the best and busiest players on the pitch were both goalkeepers.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic was pleased with the result, especially as Al Hilal are two games into their Saudi Pro League campaign.
The Croatian said: “Al Hilal have played two games. I didn’t want to make excuses before the game but we can see they have played two games more.
“The result is ok for both teams. We are satisfied with the result. To not concede at home is very important. We have some games before the next leg and the players will get much more competitive games and we will be ready for the return in Riyadh.
“There will be a great atmosphere in their stadium and hopefully Al Ain will go into the semi-final.”
Although Crescent counterpart Ramon Diaz was disappointed not to take advantage of the extra man in the second half, he was at pains to point out the significance of the two legs.
“We tried to make use of the man advantage. We had two chances to win it but they did not translate into goals. Al Ain closed all the gaps and relied heavily on their counter-attacks,” said the Argentine.
“It is a 180-minute match and we are waiting for the second one and hopefully we will qualify from that. We have another 90 minutes and we will do our best to win it.”
Unlike most games played here at the Hazza bin Zayed, the atmosphere was rocking for an AFC Champions League clash between two of West Asia’s powerhouses.
Two boisterous sets of fans set the scene with a barrage of noise before kick-off and the players certainly didn’t disappoint, with the game adopting a breakneck pace from the off.
In one frantic minute, Mohamed Abdulrahman flashed a drive just wide before Omar Khrbin let fly at the other end but sent his effort straight down Khalid Essa’s throat.
Syrian striker Khrbin, well known in these parts following his impressive stint at Al Dhafra, found the net after just 12 minutes, although his was rightly ruled out for offside – the 23-year-old rifled into the roof of the net but was clearly ahead of play following Carlos Eduardo’s overhead kick.
Thirteen minutes later, Douglas, back from the dead in the Garden City, must have felt he’d sprouted wings when he flung himself at Omar Abdulrahman’s fine delivery to stab home for the Boss, but the linesman’s flag robbed him of what would have been a deserved strike. Replays showed it was a tight call that could easily have gone the other way.
Abdullah Al Maiouf began to stockpile a clutch of saves that would earn him the man of the match award when he parried Amoory’s strike behind after he was sent clear. Then Osama Hawsawi flung himself bravely into the path of Marcus Berg’s shot to deny the Swede a goal on his competitive debut after Douglas had done well to nod a cross down into his path.
Salem was to receive an ominous yellow card on the stroke of half time for deliberately tugging Khrbin back who would have otherwise been in on goal.
Two quick yellow cards early in the second half whipped the crowd up into a frenzy again. Abdullah Al Hafith collected one initially for barging Amoory over close to goal, while the levels ratcheted up again when Saudi Arabia international Salman Al Faraj was also booked for protesting.
Who knows how loud the noise levels would have reached had Amoory found the top corner from the resulting free-kick – his effort somehow clawed out by Al Maiouf.
Then came the moment the Boss feared might tip the game in Hilal’s favour. There was barely any contact as Salem slid in on Al Faraj, but with the experienced UAE centre-back on a yellow, it was foolish to say the least.
The hosts took a little time to find their bearings after that and Matias Britos inexplicably headed against his own arm when Eduardo’s brilliant delivery found him unmarked six yards out.
Al Ain had a great chance to win it five minutes from the end when Douglas rose delightfully to meet Amoory’s inviting cross. He did everything right but somehow, again, Al Maiouf palmed away his effort.
Mamic’s men were fortunate to hold onto the result late on as first Yasir Al Shahrani saw his fierce effort tipped behind by Essa, before left-back Mohammed Jahfali wasted the best chance of the game when he ghosted in at the back post to meet a cross but ballooned his header horribly over.