Al Ain’s hopes of lifting a second Arab Club Champions Cup ended in bizarre circumstances on Saturday night as they were knocked out of the 2018/19 competition by Algeria’s ES Satif.
In a strange twist, Al Ain won the second leg 1-0 in Zagreb, meaning the tie finished 2-2 on aggregate. But Satif advanced to the last 16 via away goals, even though both the first and second legs were played at Stadion Maksimir in the Croatian capital.
Having lost the opening leg of the newly formatted straight knockout competition 2-1 on Tuesday, Zoran Mamic’s men won the second encounter, although veteran Ibrahim Diaky’s first half header was not enough to salvage their hopes in the pre-season competition, with Hacene Hemmar’s side somehow advancing.
The Boss’ preparations for the tournament had been hounded by off-field drama prior to Tuesday’s opening leg loss.
An eligibility row broke out after a threat was made to withhold all nine UAE call-ups – bar talisman Omar Abdulrahman – from the national team’s external training camp in Austria from August 1-18.
Mamic insisted it was in the “best interest” of UAE football that he had retained a number of international stars for the first-round decider against Satif.
A compromise was then reached which meant utility defender Mohamed Ahmed, centre-back Mohanad Salem and anchorman Ahmed Barman were missing from the squad in Saturday’s clincher.
However, they still dominated the game, raining 11 shots down on goal and enjoying two thirds possession.
The Boss scored the only game through their evergreen midfielder just before the break.
Versatile Japanese defender Tsukasa Shiotani’s wicked free-kick was flicked on by UAE international Amer Abdulrahman and 36-year-old Diaky was free at the back post but still had plenty to do as he stooped to head in, with Satif stopper Moustapha Zeghba getting a hand on the header but unfortunate and unable to prevent it crossing the line.
Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain get their title defence underway against Emirates Club in Ras Al Khaimah on August 31.
Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain suffered a 2-1 first-leg loss to ES Setif in the first round of their Arab Club Champions Cup campaign on Tuesday.
The Boss faced the Algerian outfit in Croatian capital Zagrab and got off to the perfect start when Ibrahim Diaky slotted home a first-half penalty.
But Al Ain who fielded a strong side were unable to build on their tally and were made to pay as ES Setif equalised before half-time before finding a late winner.
The two sides will meet again in the second leg on Saturday at the same venue – Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb.
Al Ain are one of three UAE clubs in the competition with Al Wasl and Al Jazira kicking off their campaigns later in August. Altogether, 32 teams from 15 nations, apart from Qatar, Yemen and Palestine, are competing.
The UAE’s troubled journey towards January 2019’s Asian Cup on home soil looks set to include Omar Abdulrahman and Ali Mabkhout after the exiled superstars were recalled for next month’s training camp in Austria.
Here, Sport360 picks through the major talking points caused by coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s 27-man squad.
IN THE GOOD BOOKS
It was an episode that rocked UAE football.
Zaccheroni caused consternation when he declined to select the celebrated pairing of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Abdulrahman and 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Mabkhout for March’s King’s Cup in Thailand.
This followed the controversial issuing of domestic bans after the duo were deemed to have broken curfew the evening before January 5’s painful Gulf Cup-final loss to underdogs Oman.
The players expected spring call-ups. Rumours abounded that Zaccheroni privately passed on them as further punishment, while public pronouncements spoke of an innocent desire to investigate other options.
A series of four low-key club friendlies and international test against Andorra – ranked 188th by FIFA, 114 places below the UAE – now await from August 1-19.
Salzburg’s idyllic countryside will provide the perfect setting to soothe any fraught relationships.
قائمة منتخبنا الوطني الأول لكرة القدم للمعسكر الخارجي بالنمسا خلال الفترة من 31 يوليو إلى 19 أغسطس استعدادا لنهائيات كأس آسيا الإمارات 2019 ..#منتخب_الإمارات #كأس_آسيا2019 #AsianCup2019 pic.twitter.com/WnAeqTUCsF— UAENT2019 (@uaent2019) July 27, 2018
ALBERTO’S ANDORRA POSER
Thrills and spills have come off the field during Zaccheroni’s dreary nine-month spell in charge.
A total of 10 games have been played under the ex-AC Milan, Juventus and Japan supremo. These fixtures have witnessed just three wins and – alarmingly – four goals.
Ordinarily, August 18’s denouement against Andorra would provide the chance to boost both these figures. Yet this is a side beaten only 2-0 by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the same October that Zaccheroni was appointed.
Slip up at DAS.GOLDBERG Stadion and the knives could be produced by an expectant nation.
الإيطالي البيرتو زاكيروني مدرب منتخبنا الوطني الأول يتابع المباراة الودية بين الجزيرة و رودا جي سي من الملعب برفقة الطاقم الإداري والفني للفريق pic.twitter.com/V1TWfI8bDQ— نادي الجزيرة (@AlJazira_uae) July 24, 2018
NO SALZBURG SHOWDOWN
The final stretch towards the Asian Cup is upon the UAE, but don’t read too much into Zaccheroni’s list.
The likes of red-hot Under-23s prospects Mohammed Al Attas, Jassem Yaqoob and Mohamed Al Akbari are deep in preparations for the 2018 Asian Games.
Anchorman Khamis Esmail – refreshed by a switch to Al Wasl – is back and winger Mohamed Abdulrahman is out. Yet much can still change in the first half of the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League.
The Austrian hills aren’t alive with portentous sound.