Is Al-Ain’s charge at Asian Champions League almost over?
Al-Ain, this year's runner-up in the UAE Gulf League, are one of the four West Asian teams
The AFC Champions League appears to be on a perennial voyage to East Asia, but that could be set to change this season. Powerhouses, Guangzhou Evergrade, winners of the Champions League in two of the last three seasons, and with infinitely greater resources than their competitors, were knocked out in the earliest phase.
For the West Asian hopefuls, the gross underachievers in recent years, this is the best chance at securing continental success in a decade.
Al-Ain, this year's runner-up in the UAE Gulf League, are one of the four West Asian teams – the others are El Jaish, Al-Nasr and Lokomotiv Tashkent - in the regionalised quarterfinal draw. Zlatko Dalic's side present arguably West Asia's best chance of lifting the trophy, and would become just the second Gulf side in more than a decade to be crowned Asia's champions.
But the Croatian's expected departure, following Saturday's President's Cup defeat to Al-Jazira on Sunday is set to potentially disrupt Al-Ain's Champions League campaign. Dalic's contract has come to a close, with the 49-year-old managing criticism from his own supporters amid talk of a return to his homeland to become sporting director of Hajduk.
He said: “We took Morocco Cup, Super Cup, quarters of Asian Champions League, second in Arabian Gulf League and hopefully President’s Cup tomorrow. I’m no Superman. The important thing is my players are with me and that’s all I need.”
Although the Gulf Pro League has concluded, the last-eight fixtures of Asia's premier club tournament are held in August and September. The two-legged Champions League final is in November. This will be jammed into the beginning of a new campaign for Al-Ain, one which will more than likely be stewarded under the guidance of a new coach.
If Dalic's successor requires time to adjust and find his strongest side, the club's hopes of the Champions League title could be quickly over.
Maintaining record success
Dalic, who raised his reputation in the Gulf with a successful stint at Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, was appointed by Al-Ain in March 2014. He was brought in to replace Quique Sanchez Flores, coach of Watford last season in the English Premier League, after a troubling start to the league season with six wins from 16.
Flores announced previously his desire to return to European football - a move which prompted chairman Sheikh Mohammed bin Khaled to fast-track Dalic into the hosteat, despite his original appointment to a Technical Advisor position. The Croat steadied Al-Ain's attack-heavy side, helping the Qatari team out of the Asian Champions League group stages.
Indeed, Dalic has made a name for himself in Asia's top tournament, without getting his hands on the trophy. The 49-year-old has led his last two teams out of the group stages in each of the last three seasons. While managers in the Gulf tend to come-and-go, Dalic has stuck around in the region and has developed a penchant for success.
Named Coach of the Year, Dalic helped Al-Ain to the league championship and to the Champions League semi-finals where his side lost to his former employers from Saudi Arabia. Winning the UAE Super Cup in August, the Croatian added another domestic title to his C.V. As Al-Ain embarked on a mission to secure the big prize.
However, the calendar of the UAE Gulf League means an increased likelihood of changes and instability before the key rounds of the Champions League. Dalic's side finished second in the Gulf League this season, securing qualification for next season's competition.
Yet attempts to win their second-ever continental title will take a serious blow, now that Dalic is heading for the exit door.
Perhaps a reason for Guangzhou's continental dominance is the scheduling of the Chinese domestic season. When the Red Devils approach the crucial phase of the Champions League, their league campaign is reaching its climax. Matters are still to be settled, and players are training at maximum intensity without reaching exhaustion. The little edge that Guangzhou have could make all the difference.
And with China's top team eliminated, the tournament has opened up. Although El-Jaish have impressively marched to the knockout phase, the Qataris are less experienced than Al-Ain, who boast players with international experience, like Douglas – the team's top scorer in the league with nine goals – and Dutchman Ryan Babel.
But the months of hard work in the Asian Champions League could be for nothing, if Dalic's successor doesn't hit the ground-running. While there's ultimately a wider criticism of the country's football calendar, Al-Ain's execs have to earn their cash to keep the club on track for a continental trophy.