DUBAI //The UAE clubs have struggled in the Asian Champions League because they have been reluctant campaigners in the continental competition, according to a man who has vowed to change those perceptions - the Al Shabab coach Paulo Bonamigo.
No UAE club has progressed beyond the group stages of the tournament in the last three years, despite having four representatives each season.
Seventy matches have brought 42 defeats and just 12 wins. Two years ago represented the nadir when all four of the country's teams finished at the bottom of their groups.
Shabab did come close to winning a place in the knockout stages in their last appearance in 2009, finishing a point off second place in their group. They make their return this year after finishing fourth in last season's Pro League and then winning a two-legged play-off with Neftchi, of Uzbekistan, last month.
The Mamzar club have been drawn in a group with Qatar's Al Gharafa, who they face tomorrow, Al Hilal, of Saudi Arabia, and Iran's Piroozi.
"The visiting teams coming to the UAE have not faced sides who give a lot of importance to this competition, bring their true personality to the game and or really want to succeed in Asia," Bonamigo said.
"So our focus will be on earning credibility and the respect of our opponents. How do we get that? By performing well and playing with our full force and focus. Through this, we will gain the respect of our opponents and they will not come here thinking they will get three easy points."
Adel Abdullah, the Shabab captain, said the players were ready for the match and the experience of 2009 will serve them well this time.
"If you compare us with the team from 2009, you can see we are ready to play under any circumstance," Abdullah said.
"We know how to deal with pressure. We have a set of players, five or six, who have a lot of experience and they are ready to take the team to a higher level.
"This is our first Champions League with Bonamigo; we played earlier with [Toninho] Cerezo and we want to do well for our coach. He has given a lot for Al Shabab and now it's time for us to give back."
Gharafa are coached by Bruno Metsu who will know Al Shabab well having coached the UAE for two years from 2006 and Al Ain in 2002. His team have been struggling in the league and are in sixth spot in after a poor start that yielded just one win in eight matches.
"The match will be difficult for us, but a winning start is really important," Metsu said. "It is a great chance to gain momentum going forward; if we lose we will be under pressure for other matches in the group. So we are looking forward to the match and we will try to do our best to win."
The former national team coach of Senegal acknowledges expectations on Qatari clubs will be raised this season after Al Sadd won the continental title last year, but he said his team are not under any pressure.
"It is important to participate and make a good impression, but there is not more pressure on us because Al Sadd won the Champions League," Metsu said.
"Al Sadd won the Champions League last year, but are not playing in Asia this year because they finished sixth in the league. So in football, anything is possible.
"The important point in football is to do your best. Every competition is different."
Shabab lost one of their three home games in 2009 - 4-1 to Al Ettifaq - and that proved decisive in the qualification phase. Bonamigo is keen for Shabab to make a winning start at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium tonight.
"It will be very important to start well because we are playing at home," Bonamigo said. "The group is well balanced and with 10 points, you might have a chance to qualify. With three matches at home, we have to make sure we get all nine points.
"Given the opposition, it might be a difficult game. Still, we have to make sure we get the maximum points from our home matches. That will be our strategy.
"Looking at the teams who have traditionally done well in the tournament and gone far in the competition, they have shown tactical discipline right through the 90 minutes.
"So that will be the challenge. We have to focus on the details which make the difference in a game and look to overcome all obstacles. If we want to qualify for the next stage, we have to have great mental strength."