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.
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