Al Ain exited the AFC Champions League in timid fashion, a third defeat in five Group C games rendering their 2019 campaign over.
With no wins and just two points to show for their efforts, their run has reflected their woes this season – they simply haven’t been good enough.
In an opening that was indicative of how rapidly Al Ain’s season has unravelled, they were behind after just 15 seconds. Carlos Eduardo sliced through white shirts at will and even when he was brought down, Hattan Bahebri had the speed of thought to keep the move going, turning the last man and rifling beyond Khalid Essa.
Rather than surrender and wave the white flag though, the team in white shirts fought valiantly. And it was only through Mohammad Al Shalhoub’s late counter-attacking goal that Hilal added a gloss to a 2-0 scoreline.
Here are the game’s talking points.
OUT IN THE COLD?
And so, Al Ain depart the Champions League. Sneaking out in embarrassment rather than their heroic 2016 exit when they were beaten 3-2 in the final, a missed second leg penalty away from taking South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to extra-time.
And their timid 2019 group stage exit, coupled with a woeful domestic campaign, begs the question: how long could it be before they grace the competition once more?
The Boss are in real danger of failing to qualify for 2020’s edition following a rancid run of results in the Arabian Gulf League. A stretch of five games without a win has seen them slip not only out of the title picture in the UAE, but also the continental one too.
Their wretched run – they have one win in 11 games in all competitions – has seen them slip to fourth, 13 points adrift of champions elect Sharjah.
With 40 points they sit one point and one place behind Al Jazira, who are third, while rising Al Wahda share their tally and are have won three straight – including victories over Asia-chasing Jazira and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.
Their domestic crown is gone. And they may no longer be Asian royalty either from next season, which would be the first time in eight years they would have failed to qualify for the Champions League.
The last time the ACL did not feature the men from the Garden City was 2012. This is the first time since 2013 they have failed to emerge from the group stage.
They are the only side from the Emirates to lift the continental crown and one of only two to feature in the final. But with the club in free-fall this term and domestic rivals getting stronger, fans must be fearful. The decline is real.
HILAL HIT BACK
How do you respond to a horrendous patch of form that has seen you exit the one competition via a humiliating 5-0 defeat, lose ground in the league title race and lose your manager?
Well, scoring after 15 seconds should go some way to making amends.
After appearing imperious and on course for a glut of silverware a month ago, a tumultuous April had turned things upside down for the Saudi Arabia giants. A hammering at the hands of Al Taawoun in the King’s Cup semi-finals was humiliating, adding to their 2-1 defeat at the hands of Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel in the Zayed Champions Cup.
A second defeat in three days to the same opponents – this time in the Saudi Pro League – resulted in a relinquishing of first place to fierce Riyadh rivals Al Nassr, who now lead the table by a point with two games remaining.
In the midst of such a demoralising run, coach Zoran Mamic was fired – a complete reversal in fortunes for the Croatian, who would surely have been planning to welcome his former side to Riyadh for the return leg, having overseen a 1-0 win at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium at the beginning of March.
Instead, the much-travelled Pericles Chamusca is now in control of the Crescent, and he will have at least appeased his employers by guiding the continental giants into the knockout stages of this year’s competition.
Sterner tests than a rapidly declining Al Ain lie ahead in the business end of the competition. But at least one west Asian powerhouse will be there.
LIGHT AMID THE DARKNESS
In what’s been a woeful campaign for his club, Mohammed Khalfan has really emerged in recent months as a bright prospect for Al Ain.
After being carved open in the opening seconds by Eduardo’s brilliance, Al Ain could easily have capitulated after going a goal down. They needed their experienced players to come to the fore if a humiliation was going to be avoided – with veteran midfielders Tongo Doumbia, Amer Abdulrahman and Ahmed Barman answering the call.
They were calm and composed and snapped into challenges, not allowing the hosts the time required to build their free-flowing attacks.
Although the experienced trio got to grips with Hilal’s potent players, Khalfan also really rose to the occasion.
The 20-year-old showed a calmness and maturity beyond his youthful years. He was energetic, combative and made intelligent runs throughout the contest and didn’t go hiding or shirk his defensive responsibilities.
He was fearless and flowed forward with attacking intent, confident on the ball and making intelligent runs in order to open up space for Abdulrahman and Barman to exploit, and with the ball at his feet he provided a threat to the hosts.
An incisive run into the heart of the Hilal defence could even have earned his side a penalty, while he shanked a late shot into the grateful grasp of Abdullah Al Maiouf.
It’s been a troublesome campaign for the Boss and there are testing times ahead. But the lively Khalfan has been a shining light amid dim times.
Reflection is an opportunity rarely afforded at the business end of the season.
It must, however, be undertaken by unravelling Saudi Professional League behemoth Al Hilal.
Monday’s ninth – and final – match of a hectic April witnessed in-form Al Taawoun raid King Saud University Stadium and come away with a consequential 2-0 triumph. A, golden, game in hand to usurp Riyadh neighbours Al Nassr at the top of the standings with just two matches left had been blown and a one-point deficit remained.
An unprecedented clean sweep of five trophies had looked not just possible at the end of March, but plausible. Ambitions grow when the last two transfer windows added luxury talents like ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis, Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco and Australia centre-back Milos Degenek to the resident mix of Saudi Arabia internationals.
A precipitous descent in recent weeks saw Tunisia’s, under-resourced, Etoile du Sahel strike in the 91st minute to emerge victorious in the Zayed Champions Cup decider. Taawoun then produced a historic 5-0 triumph in the King’s Cup semi-finals that hastened the demise of coach Zoran Mamic’s troubled three-month reign, prior to the top-flight shocker 72 hours later against a side led by emergency caretaker Pericles Chamusca – on loan until the end of 2018/19 from Al Faisaly.
It is incumbent on the Hilal hierarchy to use the breathing space prior to next Monday’s key 2019 AFC Champions League group-stage clash with Al Ain and contemplate how, arguably, the grandest squad assembled in Asia have become ramshackle in such a short space of time.
Thrusting the well-travelled Chamusca – Hilal are the 29th posting of a relatively undistinguished 25-year coaching career – into a match of such magnitude is just the latest in a series of bewildering calls.
As expected, Hilal and Nassr were the biggest spenders last summer after then chairman of the General Sports Authority, Turki Al Sheikh, granted bountiful transfer spending across the division.
It was crucial that such largesse was spent wisely. This is where well-connected and urbane club legend Sami Al Jaber proved essential.
Yet, after luring the likes of lauded ex-Benfica and Sporting Lisbon tactician Jorge Jesus, he was gone by September amid a typical SPL power struggle. With him went invaluable contacts and experience gained playing at four World Cups and nearly 500 matches for Hilal.
Not that his work was flawless. Whose is?
But Al Jaber’s steadying influence was most pronounced when Jesus’ reluctance to commit beyond the summer caused him to be abruptly jettisoned in late January for Al Ain’s Mamic. What folly.
A six-point lead inherited upon arrival soon evaporated after an initial seamless transition.
Mamic’s more open 4-1-4-1 formation jarred, so too his history at Nassr. The Taawoun humiliations have wrenched apart sizeable wounds that a man like Chamusca will endeavour to heal.
Faisaly rose to sixth from 11th under him, but don’t forget he was sacked by Al Shaab of the UAE’s second division in 2016/17.
These wayward decisions threaten to turn fallow a period that promised abundant success.
Brazilian substitute Romarinho struck twice in extra time as King’s Cup holders Al Ittihad’s monumental end to a troubled campaign continued with a 4-2 victory against Saudi Professional League leaders Al Nassr.
A tense first half ended with the hosts in jubilant mood after Serbia centre forward Aleksandar Prijovic’s fiercely struck volley was flimsily palmed in by Brad Jones. The lead was then doubled upon the hour mark when Saudi Arabia winger Fahad Al Muwallad rounded the ex-Liverpool goalkeeper.
Nassr were a different proposition after the break. Prolific Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah robbed the ball off teenage full-back Saud Abdulhamid and smashed home, before effortlessly dispatching an 89th-minute penalty thanks to a video-assistant review for centre-back Ahmed Assiri’s handball that moved him onto 41 goals in 31 matches.
Romarinho then converted two one-on-ones to send the King Abdullah Sports City crowd wild. Here are the talking points:
THE TIGER IS ROARING
From the lows of Slaven Bilic and a potential first relegation in 92 years of proud history, to the highs of probable SPL survival and an unthinkable shot at retaining the King’s Cup.
February’s return for Jose Luis Sierra was the best decision capricious Ittihad have made in years.
A ninth victory in 13 matches under the Chilean tactician teed up next month’s final showdown against red-hot Al Taawoun. With the likes of Al Muwallad and Morocco centre-back Manuel Da Costa in such rude form, they’ll fancy it.
CUP OF PAIN
The SPL’s top two conceded a combined nine goals during these semi-finals.
Depleted and drained Al Hilal’s 5-0 thumping by Taawoun cost beaten boss Zoran Mamic his job after just three undulating months in charge. Temporary replacement Pericles Chamusca, of Al Faisaly, is thrust straight into Monday’s SPL game in hand against the same opponent.
Nassr have seen serene progress disrupted by two worrisome defeats in their last four run-outs in all competitions.
Close to 44,000 people witnessed a contest of unyielding tempo and ferocity play out in Jeddah.
What it wasn’t, however, was an advert for first-class defending.
Nassr centre-back Hawsawi was left watching shadows throughout, Abdulhamid’s lack of experience told and Assiri’s infringement was avoidable.
Such sins, as we’ve already seen, will hurt these giants in the AFC Champions League.