DUBAI // Marcos Paqueta faced his first Asian Champions League inquisition as Al Shabab manager and gleefully spent the time fielding queries about his side's position as tournament dark horses.
Unbeaten in 13 matches and having collected eight successive victories in the Pro League, Shabab's stock seems to have risen as quickly on the continent as they have through their domestic division.
How different it is to last season's sojourn across west Asia, when the Dubai club represented not so much dark horses as sitting ducks.
A second appearance in the tournament promised much, with fresh optimism granted by the expert tutelage of Paulo Bonamigo, however three away defeats – a 6-1 drubbing to Iran's Persepolis the nadir – and no wins from a trio of home matches consigned Shabab to the bottom of their group.
At least in 2009 they managed two triumphs.
Yet a justifiable ambition has enveloped the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium in recent months, not that Paqueta is allowing minds to stray too far ahead. After all, their Group B opener against Lekhwiya, the Qatari champions, in Doha constitutes a major threat to his side's remarkable run.
"Everyone knows how difficult opening games are in any tournament," Paqueta told the media. "We have followed Lekhwiya and watched countless videos of their matches, so we know they are a strong team.
"But we understand their strengths and weaknesses, and are going through a good period ourselves, so we'll try to exploit them."
Given Shabab's fine form, perhaps it is the Lekhwiya coaching staff who can claim to possess a more pronounced set of square eyes.
Hours spent researching their opponents would presumably encourage weak hearts, too.
In Ciel, Edgar Bruno and Luiz Henrique, Shabab boast a Brazilian trio that can produce and pillage – they have 33 goals between them this season – while since they last tasted defeat the defence has been breached only 10 times.
Paqueta, a coach of considerable experience, is clearly enjoying the patience afforded to him by the board following an inauspicious beginning to his second stint at the club. His charges are obviously reaping the benefits, as well.
"When you take the reins of the team the first task is to change the general philosophy, and this is only achieved slowly," Paqueta said. "But if you notice, there are only two teams in the UAE present in all four competitions - us and Al Ain.
"Our philosophy is the same if we play in the UAE or outside our country, so we will be typically offensive [against Lekhwiya] and play to win. Lekhwiya will try to keep it tight, but the game is open to all possibilities and we hope to provide a good show."
Considering their current rude health, and a determination to atone for last season's Champions League struggle, Shabab should do just that.
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