AL AIN // The UAE’s champions find themselves in unfamiliar environs.
Al Ain last night for the first time played host at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the country’s impressive new arena, yet instead of the scheduled encounter with Manchester City, they were embroiled in an ultimately frustrating mid-table Arabian Gulf League clash against Al Dhafra.
Having coasted to the two most recent top-flight titles, Al Ain are firmly planted between the battle at the division’s summit and the scrap at its base. A new home was supposed to provide the stimulus to a late-season growth spurt, but familiar failings ensured the housewarming proved a sizeable anticlimax.
What began with ticker tape, balloons and bombast, concluded as a damp squib.
“We’re disappointed, of course, because this was like a party for the club,” said Quique Sanchez Flores, the coach, after his side let slip a slender advantage to draw 1-1. “The most important thing is the fans come to support the team and so it’s very important to put a team on the pitch that’s able to play football and create emotion in the stands.
“It’s not good if they come to celebrate the inauguration of the stadium and they see a team without spirit. We had that; the players run so much, fight so much from the first minute to the last. I know the fans aren’t happy because we drew, but we created lots of attempts. Some day the luck will change.”
Good fortune deserted Al Ain right at the death. The hosts had wasted numerous opportunities – Ismail Ahmed finally took one in the 75th minute before it was quickly cancelled by Dhafra’s Makhete Diop – but they thought a fairy-tale ending was ensured when Ahmed headed home in injury time.
However, the referee’s assistant flagged for offside, although replays showed the goal should have stood. Rightly, Al Ain felt aggrieved come the final whistle.
“We never speak about the referees, but today I have to,” Sanchez Flores said. “This year, we should have had two or three penalties – two against Ajman, one against Sharjah, one against Al Shabab – and then this decision.
“It’s working against the players and the fans, and playing with the spirit of the day, because the spirit was at its highest with the opening of the new stadium. We wanted to end in a positive way.”
The negativity, from this result to Al Ain’s present position, is understandable. Comfortably the country’s finest team of the past two seasons, the 2013/14 campaign has lurched from one crisis to the next. For Sanchez Flores, the term must not become a write-off.
“We have amazing players,” he said. “We accept the situation, but have a responsibly to continue working hard.
“Now we think about the President’s Cup semi-final” against Al Nasr next week.
“It’s a new challenge for us and we need to recuperate the players’ mentality. It’s easy for their morale to drop because they drew a match they deserved to win. It’s hard for the players, but we must be focused.”