Fans of UAE football will have observed with curiosity the fading continental fortunes of one creaking giant, and the waking from a deep slumber of another behemoth, this year.
Al Ain – record 13-time winners of the Arabian Gulf League and the only team from the Emirates to taste AFC Champions League glory – brought the curtain down on a sorry 2019 continental campaign on Monday night, following a 2-1 home defeat to Esteghlal.
Of course, their 2019 Asia ambitions officially ended in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago when they were defeated 2-0 by powerhouses Al Hilal.
The following evening, compatriots Al Wahda laid to rest the ghost of tournaments past when they booked their ticket to the knockout stages with a 3-1 triumph over Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in Abu Dhabi – it will be their first trip beyond the group phase in 12 years.
On that occasion, in 2007, the Clarets – for whom now iconic UAE forward Ismail Matar was just a 23-year-old bright-eyed star in the making – went all the way to the semi-finals.
Now with a deeply talented squad – and led by enigmatic Dutchman Henk ten Cate – the in-form capital city club should be considered dark horses for a deep run on the continent.
They have proven, yet again, they don’t possess the consistency required to win a league title over a full season. For so often in recent years, the AGL title has seemed Wahda’s holy grail. Not since 2009/10 have the Clarets hoisted the trophy.
But with a stacked arsenal of attacking options, Ten Cate’s troops have been a fearsome cup team in recent years – gluttonously hoovering up 2016/17’s President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup double, with the latter being lifted again in 2017/18.
The Clarets are the top scorers in the ACL group stages with 14 and finished top of Group B with 13 points following Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Al Ittihad in Jeddah.
Veteran Argentine strike Sebastian Tagliabue became the AGL’s leading foreign goalscorer of all time this season and could yet surpass his highest league tally of 28 (he currently leads the charts on 26).
Brazilian forward Leonardo has been a sensation since arriving on a free transfer from Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah last summer – notching 24 goals in 31 appearances. Eight of those have come in five Champions League outings and he is the tournament’s leading scorer.
Effervescent Tanzania talent Yahya Al Ghassani has shown flashes of brilliance too while Wahda’s young yet experienced core also includes goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi and versatile defenders Ahmed Rashid and Khaled Ibrahim (all 22).
Mohamed Al Hammadi (22), Tahnoon Al Zaabi (20) and Mansor Al Harbi (19) have emerged this season and played significant roles.
As they are on the rise in Asia, passing them by on a drastic slide down are Al Ain. The Boss left the building on Monday and their continental woes are a microcosm for a largely pitiful campaign in general.
Juan Carlos Garrido’s side went winless in six games, two points a paltry return for a team that reached the ACL final just three years ago and also featured in the quarters and semi-finals in the previous five years.
Their capitulation in recent months at home and abroad – they won just once during a 12-match run spanning February 28-May 6 – had led to them being alarmingly jettisoned out of both the AGL title race and the 2020 Champions League picture.
They have at least arrested this slide in recent weeks – back-to-back wins in the AGL putting them back into third and prime spot for one of the remaining two ACL spots. Third and fourth will enter the ACL qualifiers as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, guaranteed to finish runners-up behind Sharjah, have already gained Champions League entry via their President’s Cup triumph.
The Boss, therefore, look likely to stave off what would be an embarrassing first failure to reach the Champions League in eight years.
Not since 2012 has the competition not counted the Boss among its 32 starting combatants. The last time they failed to get beyond the group stage was 2013.
Then again, even if they do make it, they’re still vulnerable. A daunting trip to the capital to take on Wahda – three points behind and with a superior goal difference – awaits in their final league game on Saturday, while Al Jazira are a point behind in fourth and go to ninth-placed Al Nasr.
Even if they achieve their aim, the most testing of summers awaits. Garrido – if he remains in charge – and club brass have some major issues to thrash out. Sweden striker Marcus Berg is likely to leave while livewire Brazilian Caio is heading to Portuguese giants and Primeira Liga champions Benfica.
Wahda’s faith in youth – something championed by Ten Cate during his Jazira revolution – proves they are moving with the times, while Al Ain remain anchored in defence by Ismail Ahmed (35) and Mohanad Salem (34), steadfastly refusing to change.
Too many weeds have been allowed to grow in the Garden City. If they are not cut away, the Boss could be stuck in the shade of taller trees for some time.
Know more about Sport360 Application