WHAT FRONTIERS ARE NEXT FOR AL AIN TO CONQUER?
The way Cosmin Olaroiu sees it, even after consecutive runaway championships in the Pro League, there is nowhere to go but up.
"After two years of winning the title, we need to make the next step up," said Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach, as his side prepared to be crowned UAE champions for a second successive season.
The Romanian is not known, among the media at least, for his wicked sense of humour. Clearly, being the country's finest team by a comfortable margin this season no longer sates the appetite.
"Personally, I'm not satisfied as I didn't hit all the targets I set," he continued. "We won the league, which was priority, but we got only that … I believe we can go even farther than we did."
It is a sense shared among all associated with the Garden City club.
Last Friday's coronation was celebrated with the usual vigour, supporters descending in number upon the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, yet among the flashbulbs and the fanfare there remained an air of frustration: Al Ain had only the Pro League title.
That is not to denigrate the championship; an 11th top-flight crown may have swiftly followed the 10th, but seven seasons of little yield is not easily forgotten. This is, after all, widely regarded as the UAE's preeminent club.
However, with reputation comes towering expectation. At the season's inception, Al Ain had mapped a crusade across the continent but endured only the length of the Asian Champions League's Group D. The President's Cup was hardly fulfilling, and last night's showpiece between Al Ahli and Al Shabab would have gnawed.
Al Ain, defeated this month in the semi-finals, last embraced that prize in 2009.
So, with 2012/13 now officially in the past, how do they forge a more rewarding future?
We have been told the foreign quartet will remain, although recent speculation regarding the acquisition of Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan at England's Queens Park Rangers, suggests there could yet be a little finessing.
According to club sources, a bid is not forthcoming, despite Al Ain having scouted the playmaker before. Should Taarabt be considered, though, Jires Kembo-Ekoko would be the one to make way.
Much depends on Omar Abdulrahman, as well. The Emirati has long been touted for a transfer to Europe, but still no concrete proposals have materialised. If he were to go, it would create a serious conundrum, given his constitution as a home-grown player.
Al Ain expect him to stay, much like they envisage more from Asamoah Gyan and Alex Brosque.
Both shone last season, but Gyan's contribution in Asia was constricted by the strain of the African Cup of Nations when he returned for the Champions League significantly out of shape.
This year, the Asian assignment should only be sparked by the carrot of a World Cup appearance with Ghana; likewise, Brosque will be eager to represent Australia in Brazil.
The extra motivation bodes well.
Also, Al Ain can find optimism in the continued development of their talented youth team, with anticipation surrounding the graduation of Yousef Ahmad, Ryan Yaslam and Ahmed Barman.
Abdul Aziz Fayez, the promising midfielder, has returned from injury and will only augment the squad.
A stronger roster, both in experience and personnel, has filled Al Ain with greater conviction.
As Olaroiu remarked last week, so has a season of personal discontent.
WHO WILL BE NEXT SEASON'S MAIN CHALLENGERS?
Back in 2007, when Roger Federer was at his prime, John McEnroe suggested that the Swiss maestro was having it a bit too easy, getting “too much respect” from the other players.
The “Superbrat” of tennis urged Federer’s opponents to find reasons “not to like him” and to try and “get under his skin”.
A similar suggestion could be made to the “other” Pro League clubs as well. Al Ain have looked Federer-esque in their dominance over the past two seasons and most of the other clubs have looked content to be playing for the spots behind the champions.
Last year, Al Ain finished 14 points ahead of Al Nasr, sealing the fate of the title almost five weeks ahead of close. This year, they were confirmed champions four weeks in advance. Actually, that unofficial confirmation came way back in November, with rival coaches conceding that manager Cosmin Olaroiu’s men were unstoppable.
While most clubs here would love to be in their position, Al Ain are not really happy about the lack of competition.
“Al Ain winning the title with a full four rounds to play is not in the interest of UAE football of the league,” said Mohammed Obaid, director of football at Al Ain.
He bemoaned the decline in the levels of the other clubs, except one: Al Ahli.
Al Ain met Ahli three times this season and failed to beat Quique Sanchez Flores’s men, at least not on the pitch. They were awarded a 3-0 win by the disciplinary committee, while Ahli won the other two, scoring a stunning 6-3 win in their opening league match and then knocking Al Ain out of the President’s Cup with a 2-1 win in the semi-finals.
They have certainly been the only team who have taken the pitch believing they could beat Al Ain; they have also managed to “get under the skin” of the champions as well, and there is no reason to believe that will change next season.
Man for man, Ahli have as much quality as Al Ain. If the champions have Asamoah Gyan, than the Dubai club have Grafite; if Olaroiu’s team can boast of the most precious gem in UAE football, Omar Abdulrahman, then Ahli have a string of pearls in Ismail Al Hammadi, Majed Hassan, Adnan Hussain and Ahmed Khalil.
If Al Ain have Mohammed Ahmed and Mohannad Salem in defence, than Ahli have the two Abdulazizs - Sanqoor and Haikal.
And for Dawood Sulaiman, there is Majed Naser.
If sports director Fabio Cannavaro and Sanchez Flores can convince former Arsenal man Jose Antonio Reyes to leave Sevilla for Dubai, or Portuguese playmaker Hugo Viana to make the move, then Ahli will be a lot more formidable.
Ahli, then, will be the biggest threat to Al Ain’s hope of a three-peat.
HOW CAN THE CAPITAL CLUBS GET BACK ON TOP?
The emirate of Abu Dhabi has had a stranglehold on the Pro League title for the past four seasons with Al Wahda (2010), Al Jazira (2011) and then Al Ain (2012 and 2013) taking home the trophy.
However, this season has been a disappointing one for the two biggest clubs from the capital – Al Wahda and Al Jazira. Both clubs finished without trophies, even though Baniyas won the Gulf Clubs Championship and minnows Al Dhafra – who train in Abu Dhabi and play in the Western Region – finished a creditable eighth.
Jazira, President’s Cup winners in 2012, parted ways with their Brazilian coach Paolo Bonamigo when they were in second place in the league, just six points behind Al Ain.
Bonamigo’s replacement, Luis Milla, had less than a week to prepare for the club’s opening match in the Asian Champions League, followed by a critical meeting with Al Ain.
They lost both games and never recovered, finishing 15 points behind Al Ain, in third place. They missed out on the cup competitions, too, losing 2-1 to Ajman in the Etisalat Cup final.
Three blocks across town, Wahda are now without a trophy since that 2010 title, finishing seventh this season, having lost 11 of their 26 games.
Wahda tried a similar ploy with their managerial situation, firing Branko Ivankovic a week before the President’s Cup semi-final against Al Shabab, their last remaining chance of a trophy.
Josef Hickersberger, who led them to their 2009/10 league title, was appointed as interim coach, but did not have an impact as Wahda lost 2-0.
So where do the capital clubs go from here?
Maybe they should take a look at Al Ain. Two years ago, the Garden City club were battling relegation.
It was a situation they had never before experienced in the history of the club.
They survived, finishing 10th in a 12-team league at the time, five points above the drop zone.
A dramatic change took place soon after the final game, with the club management replacing the entire administration, technical staff, and their foreign players.
The new administration, headed by Sheikh Abdulla bin Mohammed, had an action plan.
Cosmin Olaroiu was appointed as coach and high-profile foreign players such as Asamoah Gyan and Yasser Al Qahtani arrived.
The complete overhaul of the club, coupled with the emergence of promising Emirati players such as Omar Abdulrahman, has seen Al Ain emerge as Pro League champions twice in a row.
It may be the time for the two former powerhouses in Abu Dhabi to prepare for the next season by taking a page out of Al Ain’s book of success from the last two years.
ARE CLUBS GETTING THEIR ASIAN PLAYER 'RIGHT'?
Evaluating the impact of the Pro League’s second batch of Asian players is a mite more difficult than assessing its other expatriates.
With players from South America, Africa or Europe - of which there are many - their value can usually be quantified by a cursory glance at the league’s goal-scoring charts, considering the majority tend to be attackers.
Peruse the season’s final standings and that theory is rapidly reinforced: of the Pro League’s top 20 scorers in 2012/13, non-Asian foreign stars fill all but three spots.
An Asian occupies only one of those - Alex Brosque, Al Ain’s Australian, with 10 goals in an impressive debut campaign.
Cast an eye further down the list and you will find at position 30 Takayuki Morimoto, the Japanese striker who, granted, joined Al Nasr in January; Hassan Maatouk, Al Shaab’s Lebanese winger (46); Amer Deeb, the Jordanian at Kalba (48).
So, four Asians in the division’s 50 most-prolific players. Admittedly, Emiratis barely bulge from the same sample - there are 14 - yet there is a sense that, given last season’s introduction of an extra “overseas” player, a club’s Asian representative should contribute much more.
Again, those providing an additional attacking thrust seem preferable.
It could be argued, though, that in the UAE top flight’s highest-scoring season, an increase in dependable defenders is recommended.
However, it is those who can penetrate a tight back line with a cunning pass or bristle the net that affect matches more significantly, although the perpetual concern that an abundance of foreign frontmen stymies the development of Emirati strikers cannot be ignored.
The “Asian experiment” has proved a success this campaign - Fawzi Bashir (Ajman) and Nick Carle (Baniyas) have shone - but a finessing of the recruitment process is needed to maximise its potential.