DUBAI // Earlier in the season, when Al Shabab were in the throes of an upheaval on and off the pitch, there were suggestions that the club should give the Champions League a miss and focus on a domestic resurrection. The proposition outraged coach Toninho Cerezo. "We have to participate in the championship," said the Brazilian, who last season guided Shabab to a first league title since 1995.
"We worked hard last season and won the right to participate in an international competition. It doesn't make sense to give up on it. We will be wasting all the efforts we made last season." Normality has since been restored at the Al Maktoum stadium. The boardroom is in order, the team are rising up the table in the Pro League and confidence is high as the battles in Asia begin. Shabab start their Champions League campaign tonight in the Iranian city of Esfahan against the 2007 finalists Sepahan - the 2008 semi-finalists Bunyodkor and Saudi Arabia's Ettifaq are their other opponents in Group D.
Sepahan, who finished runners-up to Persepolis in the Iranian league last season but are struggling in fifth this season, have a number of Iranian national stars in their ranks and playing at their 70,000-capacity stadium could be intimidating for the visitors. Cerezo, however, is not too concerned. "I have been in football for a long time and I am not scared of playing against anybody," he said. "But we have to respect the opponent.
"We will be playing outside the UAE after a long time. For some players, it will be their first time in this competition. But just as you play away, you also play at home. "When you are playing at home, you have the advantage. So how we play outside the country is going to be very important. Obaid al Hubaitha, the team manager, added: "It is a tough group, but so are all the other groups. "It will depend on how we play, we have to do it in a clever way. We have to try to get at least a point in away games, and try to win at home. That's it."
Cerezo added: "Our boys are very confident. "What really matters is what happens on the field. Football starts when the referee blows his first whistle, and it is 11 players against 11. So we believe we also have our chances." firstname.lastname@example.org