Al Ain’s continental aspirations appear over for 2019 as they suffered a 2-0 home defeat to Al Duhail.
Almoez Ali and Youssef El Arabi goals either side of the break earned Rui Faria’s side victory in the Garden City – a result that leaves Juan Carlos Garrido’s side on the brink of elimination from the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Here we take a closer look at the performance of the home side’s Tongo Doumbia who stood out despite the defeat.
Garrido saw his side summon a superhuman effort in the reverse fixture as the brave Boss came from 2-0 down to salvage a deserved point two weeks ago. And the Spaniard may have felt the same miraculous powers of recovery would be needed again when his side conceded after just three minutes, Ali nodding in Edmilson’s cross following fine footwork that bamboozled Tsukasa Shiotani.
The hosts had their fair share of possession but created few chances – Bandar Al Ahbabi firing a free-kick over soon after and Ahmed Barman shooting wide, but Amine Lecomte-Addani was fairly untroubled in the visiting goal.
Their lack of creative spark showed when Garrido introduced Rayan Yaslam and Marcus Berg from the bench in quick succession but it proved in vain as El Arabi killed off home hopes when Shoya Nakajima dummied Ali’s low centre and he rifled high beyond Khalid Essa.
GOT RIGHT – KEPT HIS SIDE IN THE FIGHT
Doumbia has been in and out of the side in recent weeks but in times of strife, warriors were needed and he certainly battled hard for 90 minutes as Al Ain tried to pull off another heroic fightback.
Anchoring the midfield alongside Barman, the Mali international stood tall amid an early barrage of Duhail domination, breaking up attacks and providing a calm presence in the Boss’ engine room.
He was alert and forceful when needed and when the red-shirted visitors were repelled he was always a calm figure to receive the ball and try to spark Al Ain attacks.
GOT WRONG – ROUGH TREATMENT
In recent weeks Al Ain have been crying out for an enforcer, someone to grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them out of the doldrums. And Doumbia certainly fits the bill.
He is powerful, agile and tough as nails – and can also play a bit. But there were times in the second half, and with the game starting to slide by Al Ain, that he appeared to be walking a tightrope.
He incensed Dubail players when he left Edmilson in a heap, although he barely brushed the Brazilian attacker. But it was certainly done out of frustration and hardly helped his side’s cause.
VERDICT – 6/10
Calm and composed in the face of a deadly Duhail attack, Doumbia at least put his body on the line as he patrolled midfield and snuffed out regular attacks. The former Wolves, Toulouse and Dinamo Zagreb midfielder was always an outlet for his defenders and was never afraid to put his foot in where it hurt.
Success can bring its own set of problems – and this is something Al Hilal are acutely aware of as Thursday’s Zayed Champions Cup final against Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel slots into an exhausting fixture list.
The overworked Saudi Arabian heavyweights are in the midst of nine matches across four different competitions during April. Prevail during their sixth of the month and they’ll remain on course for a legendary quintuple, although their imminent opposition at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium will intend to derail these lofty ambitions at the first time of asking.
Here are the talking points:
TESTING MAMIC’S METTLE
Infamy or history await Hilal supremo Zoran Mamic.
From being on the verge of the sack after defeats in the AFC Champions League and Saudi Professional League less than a fortnight ago, things are looking rosy again for the Croatian.
His astuteness must now come to the fore when he attempts to pull off an expert juggling act that would spawn envious glances from a Cirque du Soleil performer.
Vocal Hilal fans have rallied against tournament organisers on social media for this punishing period, while suggesting that they wouldn’t mind seeing the King’s Cup sacrificed.
This will not be Mamic’s view. But could weariness play a defining role on Thursday?
Resource management is key. This should mean fresh opportunities for the likes of underperforming January addition Hattan Bahebri, while resting key performers like weary ex-France striker Bafetimbi Gomis at apt moments.
Get it right and Mamic will be a legend. He knows after less than three months in the hot seat, however, how quickly the mood can change if he doesn’t.
ETOILE’S GUIDING HAND
What can Hilal expect from the Tunisians?
They sit a distant third in the Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle 1, in contrast to the new SPL leaders. A gentle run to this decider has seen them edge past, largely, fellow North Africans, granted they do seem bound for the CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals.
None of their number featured in last month’s Tunisia squad.
But in septuagenarian boss Roger Lemerre they boast a Euro 2000 winner with France. His wiles may be key to springing an upset.
Embattled Al Hilal boss Zoran Mamic will be the centre of attention during a potentially decisive round 27 of the Saudi Professional League.
A 2-1 midweek defeat to Iran’s Esteghlal in the AFC Champions League deepened the sense of crisis at the champions. Rumours have swirled about the 47-year-old being dismissed if his side are defeated at fellow heavyweights Al Ahli Jeddah, little more than two months since he was poached from Al Ain after the startling exit of Jorge Jesus.
Elsewhere, bottom-placed Ohod could be relegated and there is a gargantuan match of great significance at both ends of the table when leaders Al Nassr host floundering giants Al Ittihad.
Here are the latest talking points:
MAMIC’S LAST STAND?
How have we come to this?
Even in the frenetic, capricious and chaotic realm of the SPL, Mamic’s fall from grace has been staggering. From gallantly prevailing in nine of his first 11 fixtures in all competitions, to winning just two of his last five.
Critically, this spell included devastating 97th-minute defeat in last month’s Riyadh derby at Nassr – a result which saw the Croat’s six-point lead upon arrival descend into a one-point disadvantage.
Crippling injuries in centre midfield have bitten. But this does not fully explain perplexing decisions such as the ill-advised shackling of the adventurous Mohamed Kanno as the anchor man and placing the ageing Sebastian Giovinco on the wing.
Hilal will also have to deal with fit-again Syria centre forward Omar Al Somah. Fifth-placed Ahli’s last domestic outing was an ominous 4-0 dismantling of defensively minded Al Shabab Riyadh, although they went down 2-0 versus Iran Persepolis in midweek.
Spirit and mentality will be key for the visitors at a lively King Abdullah Sports City.
Has Mamic’s parlous situation, however, already reached critical mass, or will his squad scrap for their manager? We’ll soon find out…
UPS AND DOWNS
Nassr and Ittihad were Saudi football’s financial basket cases.
Both benefited more than most from the General Sports Authority’s lavish summer reset of the struggling Saudi game.
Deserved pacesetters Nassr have soared with the likes of 25-goal predator Abderrazak Hamdallah. Yet at the Tigers, institutional crisis and reckless spending appears systemic.
They’ve spent the entire season in the relegation places. But three-successive wins, in three different competitions, have escalated hope of a late escape act under the rehired Jose Luis Sierra.
A fourth will reshape the scrap for survival and glory.
OHOD VICTIMS OF OWN CHAOS
The time is fast approaching to say “Maa Salam” to bottom-placed Ohod.
A trio of coaches and six winter foreign signings point to endemic disorder.
An 18th defeat of the campaign, against third-bottom Al Fayha, will seal their fate. Even victory might not be enough if results don’t go their way, elsewhere.
Such mismanagement means they will not be missed.