AL AIN // The denizens of the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, while a little under-populated on Thursday evening in Al Ain, found constant voice to cheer their heroes to a second successive Pro League title.
The destination of the championship may have, in the minds of those who follow closely the contest, long been settled, but the visit of Dubai promised the points to confirm Al Ain’s coronation with four games to spare.
Before kick-off – brought forward 24 hours to accommodate next week’s Asian Champions League commitments – the Garden City’s notoriously vociferous support gathered en masse, in expectation more than anticipation.
They were here to serenade their stars; they departed celebrating their talent. Title No 11 may have promptly followed an eight-year wait for No 10, but it made it no less enjoyable – the fans rising to their feet in injury time to sing, clap and salute their victorious troops.
There is a clear impression this is a team for the ages, capable of dominating domestically and commanding the continent. For now, though, another Pro League trophy would suffice.
“We played spectacular football throughout this competition,” said Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach. “The players warrant all our respect. I want to thank them and the management, as they deserve this because we were the best team, won most of our games and scored a lot of goals without conceding many.
“We managed our second title today. This is the reason I stayed here last year, because everyone told me nobody had won successive titles. Now I want to do more than I did this year.”
For Ismail Ahmed, an unused substitute given Tuesday’s trip to Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia, the secret to Al Ain’s success lies in a strong team ethic.
“It’s something amazing to win the league with four games left,” he said. “We want to thank everybody from the coach to the management because it’s not easy to do this.
“We work together. We don’t have stars, the coach trusts all the players and knows if we don’t have one player available, we can bring in another. You see in the matches, we always win as a club.”
Ahmed’s sentiments were echoes by Alex Brosque, the summer signing from the J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse. The Australian, not risked as he was carrying a slight injury, appeared on the pitch at the final whistle, and was quickly lifted aloft by a posse of teammates.
“I know last year they were champions and there was a lot of pressure on everyone to try to do it again,” he said. “So to back up last year’s win is brilliant, getting that reward has made my move worth it.”
Asamoah Gyan, the hero of the night with a hat trick, added: “It’s a great feeling. We worked really hard and have been united.
“We started slowly by losing our first game and everybody thought it would be difficult for us, but we kept our composure. The teamwork was there.”
It was rather fitting that Gyan proved the match-winner. As so often has been the case in this 2012/13 season, the prolific Ghanaian supplied the finishing touch to his teammates’ efficient endeavours.
Gyan twice rose above the Dubai defence to power home a header – one in each half – before the striker took his tally to a barely believable 28 goals in 20 games with a thumping half-volley direct from Abdulla Sultan's goal kick.
All three highlights were commemorated in typical Gyan fashion: a joyful jig for the televisions cameras, the festivities soon swollen by grateful colleagues.
By now, Al Ain’s fans were ecstatic, ready to drift off into this Thursday evening with dreams realised and ambitions further thickened.
FIVE OF THE BEST
Al Ain 3 Al Ahli 6
Before a ball had been kicked, many voices predicted an easy title defence, with the club apparently willing to focus instead on the Asian Champions League. While Olaroiu warned against complacency, an opening-day drubbing hinted otherwise. Perhaps a necessary wake-up call. Al Ain regrouped, winning 13 of their next 14 matches.
Al Shabab 2-3 Al Ain
Asamoah Gyan stole the headlines with two goals - part of a run that saw him collect 21 goals in 13 matches - but it was Ismail Ahmed’s 75th-minute strike that proved decisive. Victory propelled the champions to the summit for the first time in 2012/13. They have remained there ever since.
Baniyas 0-3 Al Ain
Billed as a true test of the champions’ mettle, it was anything but. At the time, Baniyas represented their closest rivals in the table - they had won seven of nine heading into the encounter - yet Al Ain blew them away, their three foreign attackers each getting on the score sheet. The win took them six points clear.
Al Ain 1-0 Al Jazira
A rare moment of fragility the previous week suggested there was life left in the title race. Al Ain, visibly creaking, had suffered a shock 1-0 loss at home to Dibba Al Fujairah, the basement club. But they rebounded against Jazira, with Gyan scoring late on from the spot. With seven matches to play, the lead was six points.
Al Ahli 0-3 Al Ain
Ahli, their nearest competitors, required a win to keep the campaign alive. An object thrown from the stands struck the referee’s assistant and the match ended prematurely and the league awarded Al Ain the points. An 11th title was all but theirs.
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