For a team starting the new Arabian Gulf League (AGL) season as defending champions, there is much uncertainty to inhibit Al-Ain. Having won three titles in just four years, the Abu Dhabi side are the United Arab Emirates’ predominant footballing force right now, yet manager Zlatko Dalic has much to ponder.
Such success is not entirely attributable to just one player, but Nigerian striker Asamoah Gyan was Al-Ain’s front man just like Freddie Mercury was Queen’s - it was about one man more than any other. Without him, there would have been no spectacle and maybe even no league title.
However, with Gyan - who scored an astonishing 95 goals in just 81 games over four years - now gone, Al-Ain have a gaping void to fill at the head of their attacking. However, while much has been made of the club’s efforts to replace the Nigerian ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, Dalic’s concern is instead rooted in defense.
Al-Ain conceded a miserly 19 goals over the course of last season, and yet allowed 14 goals to be scored against them in just six pre-season games this year. What has changed for Dalic’s side over the summer? Why is a team that was so defensively resolute last season now decidedly unsure of themselves at the back?
On the basis of Al-Ain’s AGL opener against Al-Dhafra last week, there is not too much for Dalic to be worried about. Myeong-Ju Lee impressed - as he did for much of last season - with new summer signing Ryan Babel settling into the starting line-up somewhat seamlessly, but the Croatian coach was rather irked with the defensive performance of his side.
“We need to improve our last line, because last season we played fantastic in defence and took everything with our defense,” Dalic said after the win. “We conceded in the last minute [against Al-Dhafra] and it can’t be like this. We have to improve, but I don’t know how and when.”
Setting a precedent
Dalic was most likely being pedantic in this instance given the standard of his side’s display against Al-Dhafra, but it is perhaps wise of the Croatian to set such a firm precedent considering Al-Ain’s pre-season defensive struggles. Despite his side’s success last term, the former Hadjuk Split midfielder is tasked with achieving even further improvement, and that might come at the back.
Much of Al-Ain’s defensive resolve relies on the self-assurance and presence of Mohanad Salem, who was one of the UAE’s brightest talents as they made it to the Asia Cup semi-finals earlier this year. However, with the 30-year-old now primarily used as a left-back, Ismail Ahmed and Saeed Mosabah Salem are now Dalic’s favoured central-defensive pairing.
Domestically, such a basis will likely prove strong enough, but with Al-Ain now prioritizing the Champions League, it is possible Dalic is seeking to fine-tune his defense ahead of more challenging continental tests next year. That is where the true gauge of the club’s progression under the Croatian will be taken, following their run to the semi-finals this season.
Most expect Al-Ain to be tested more stringently this season given the loss of Gyan over the summer, but they still have the talent and depth to retain their title, albeit maybe not with three rounds of fixtures to spare as they did last season.
Omar Abdulrahman remains a shining star of the AGL, with Emanuel Emenike sure to be a success as the club’s new attacking focal point. Myeong-Ju, Babel and Brazilian Fellipe Bastos also distinguish Al-Ain’s squad, making them title frontrunners even post-Gyan.
Dalic, however, is clearly a sceptic over whether the Abu Dhabi club’s backline can match up to the level set by the rest of the team. While Al-Ain might not suffer much defensive hardship at the hands of AGL opposition, the Croatian coach might be pre-empting the shock of continental competition before it comes around again next year. It is said hindsight makes geniuses of us all, but Dalic is reliant on foresight counting for even more.