In 2004, Al Ain won an unprecedented ninth league championship, and it seemed unlikely their wait for a 10th would be long. They had won the two previous and five of seven since 1998. In October of 2003 they had been crowned champions of Asia. The Al Ain of that time had rivals but they did not really have equals.
Jump forward eight years, and that 10th league plate finally is close enough to touch. A reinvigorated Al Ain, with new board, new coach, new expatriates and new confidence, can clinch the championship with a victory tonight over holders Al Jazira at what will be a packed Tahnoon bin Mohammed Stadium in the Garden City's Al Qattara district.
"This match is like a final," said Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ain's Romanian coach. "We are waiting to harvest our efforts for the whole season, so we should double our efforts and increase our concentration to reach our end."
Jazira have been both busy and successful in recent weeks. This is their sixth match in 25 days across three competitions, and during that time they have clinched a berth in the Asian Champions League knockout stage, after a victory and a draw over the Iran side Esteghlal, and on Monday defeated Baniyas to win the President's Cup.
The capital club may be a bit weary, but they will need to be at their best to keep a well-rested Al Ain from securing the league.
"We have a very important target, to keep Al Ain from taking the title from this game," said Caio Junior, Jazira's Brazilian coach.
"We have had a very short time to regroup, but we will put our best effort forward to win the three points."
Al Ain lead Jazira by eight points with four matches left, and a victory would leave them 11 ahead with three left, and no other club could be closer than 10 points behind.
Asamoah Gyan has been the most productive player in the Al Ain arsenal; the striker on loan from Sunderland of the English Premier League leads the league with 17 goals, in only 14 appearances. He missed several games while with Ghana in the African Cup of Nations.
Yasser Al Qahtani, the former Saudi captain, has rounded into form as Gyan's partner in the attack.
"We will adopt the same strategy as we did against Baniyas in the President's Cup final, and that is to strike a good balance between attack and defence," Caio Junior said. "However, Al Ain will be a different opponent than Baniyas because they have a very dangerous attack led by Gyan and Al Qahtani. We have a plan for them, though."
Jazira have their own potent strike force in Ricardo Oliveira and his Brazil compatriot Bare, as well as Matias Delgado, the Argentine midfielder.
Al Ain's attack is more than just Gyan and Al Qahtani, however. Ignacio Scocco, the Argentine, has seven league goals, and Omar Abdulrahman, the Emirati midfielder, also has a nose for the goal.
Jazira have scored more league goals than have Al Ain, 44-39. Al Ain's advantage is in defence; their 14 goals conceded are best in the league. The goalkeeper Dawoud Sulaiman, who took over for Walid Salem when the latter suffered a head injury, has five clean sheets in his nine league appearances.
Hilal Saeed, who played with Jazira the previous two seasons, has been a ball-winning force at his defensive midfield slot, and the back four, led by Fawzi Fayez and Ismail Ahmed, have been steady.
Jazira, meanwhile, will play without two of their regulars on defence, the Australian central-defender Lucas Neill and the defensive midfielder Khamis Ismail; each is serving a one-match ban. Sami Rabia and Ali Abbas are likely to replace them.
Olaroiu said Al Ain do not feel under pressure to win tonight.
"Logically, we would be pressurised if we were only one or two points clear from the second on the table but we have an eight-point lead," he said.
"We have no pressure, with Al Ain fans existing in all stadiums, and I believe they will come to Al Qattara in huge numbers."
– Additional reporting by Amith Passela.
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