Omar Abdulrahman and Al Ain in sight of rare glory
Al Ain will now face Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in next month’s two-legged final
For the second season running, a UAE club will contest the final of the AFC Champions League, after Al Ain’s last gasp 2-2 draw with Qatar’s El Jaish on Wednesday saw them claim a 5-3 semi-final aggregate win.
Once again, the continent’s premier club competition is tantalizingly close for the team qualifying from the AFC Western Zone. Once again an Eastern powerhouse stands in the way.
Al Ain will now face Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in next month’s two-legged final after they beat fellow South Korean club FC Seoul Wednesday night.
Last year, Al Ahli fell short against Guangzhou Evergrande of China. Al Ain, the only Emirati club to win the competition back in 2003 when they beat Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana, will never have a better chance to become kings of Asia again.
Despite suffering a few anxious moments on Tuesday night as El Jaish threatened to score a goal that would have taken the tie into extra time, Al Ain showed maturity and confidence to ultimately seal the tie with a last-minute strike of their own.
Amoory leading glory charge
At the heart of the performance, not surprisingly, was the peerless Omar Abdulrahman. Some might have wondered if coming off the back of the international break, and a devastating 3-0 loss with the UAE away to Saudi, would have any lasting negative effects on the midfield maestro, and indeed his international teammates.
The fears proved unfounded. Abdulrahman produced a performance that left Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic gushing.
“He can do everything on the pitch,” said the Croatian of the player Emirati fans affectionately call Amoory. “He’s as important to my team as Ronaldo or Messi are to theirs.”
High praise indeed, shared by the opposition. After a similarly superlative performance in the first leg, El Jaish coach Sabri Lamouchi called Abdulrahman “absolutely the best player in Asia.”
With the captain in seemingly unstoppable form and superbly supported by brother Mohammed, new signing Amer Abdulrahman, rising Emirati star Ahmed Barman and the Brazilian Caio; and with the second leg of the final being played at what will undoubtedly be a heaving Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the stars seem to be aligning for Al Ain. It’s hard for club’s supporters to keep expectations to a minimum in the weeks up to the first leg at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium on November 19. Still, it would be wise to err on the side of caution.
Emirati clubs have been here in recent seasons, only to fall at the final hurdle. Last year Al Ahli knocked Al Ain out before going on to lose the final. Al Ain had lost the semifinal in 2014.
Al Ain will need to maintain the winning mentality they have shown throughout the current campaign if they are to finally bring home a trophy that is increasingly being hogged by Asia’s eastern clubs. The time for excuses has passed, despite genuine grievances for all clubs taking part.
History and format against Al Ain
The set-up of the competition is certainly not to everyone’s liking. The calendar year format is controversial to say the least, meaning clubs from the UAE and other Gulf leagues very often conclude their campaigns with significantly different squads to the ones they started with. In contrast, Jeonbuk currently lead the K-League standings after 34 matches, their season neatly running in parallel with the 2016 AFC Champions League.
Not to mention that many supporters would prefer a one-off final on a neutral ground, like the competition’s famous European equivalent.
There is also the added issue of the impact that the continued separation of the Western and Eastern Zone is having on the quality of football - in the Middle East at least. The format may save clubs arduous journeys during the season as well as cutting out logistical nightmares, but familiarity is in danger of breeding ennui on the pitch, with the same clubs clashing year after year. There is a suggestion that this has contributed to the stagnation of Middle Eastern clubs as the Far Eastern region, boosted by the recent rise of Chinese football, goes from strength to strength.
There is a growing feeling, born out of brutal facts, that these days the winner of the Eastern side of the draw come into the AFC Champions League final as odds-on favorites. No team from the Western Zone has won the competition, whether in its current two-legged final format or the one-off finals between 2009 and 2012, since 2005. Indeed, that was Saudi’s Al Ittihad beating Al Ain 4-2 in the days before the final ensured opponents from either zone.
Al Ain must put these obstacles and omens behind them. They have formidable team that for once seems to be hitting its peak at the right time in this competition. And - as if it needs to be repeated - with ‘Amoory’ in the form of his life, nothing is impossible.