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UAE prospects in Asian Champions League will be clearer after Al Ain play qualifier

Al Ain need to reach the group stages of the Asian Champions League before the Pro League is to be considered one of the best leagues in the region.

Dubai // Carlo Nohra, the chief executive of the UAE Pro League, will be watching closely when the Asian Champions League qualifying play-off takes place on February 19. The match will feature Al Ain, who finished third in the domestic league last season, against either Sriwijaya of Indonesia or Muangthong United of Thailand for a place in the group stages.

Nohra knows, as far as the league's 10-year objective goes, if the Pro League is to continue its quest to be recognised as the best technical domestic competition in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the country's teams must improve their performances in the continent's flagship tournament.

Al Ain's campaign, more so than the other three Emirates-based clubs, will provide a telling insight into where exactly the Pro League stands.

While Al Wahda, Emirates and Al Jazira will compete in four-team groups alongside west Asian clubs from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and, in the case of Wahda, Uzbekistan, Al Ain - courtesy of the AFC's need for balancing the play-offs - have been moved into the east Asia side of the draw.

As a result, should Al Ain safely negotiate their preliminary final, they will be placed in Group F with Hangzhou Greentown of China, FC Seoul of South Korea and Japan's Nagoya Grampus.

Al Ain won the AFC Champions League in 2005, but as Nohra is all too aware, the previous two seasons have been forgettable for Emirati sides. Last year, all four UAE teams finished bottom of their respective groups.

"The AFC Champions League is a gauge of how we are doing relative to our neighbours," said Nohra, who helped relaunch the confederation's elite competition in 2002. "The last two seasons we have not done well at all, so it is important that we do well this year, as it will be a sign that technically we are improving.

"I don't have expectations other than winning a few matches and putting a few more points on the board than we did last season and the year before that. But let's remember that between the years 2003 and 2008, we had a club win the event, reach the final, a semi final and two quarter-finals."

Nohra moved to the UAE in December 2009 after seven years working with the AFC. A. s director of competitions, he interacted closely with Mohamed Bin Hammam, the AFC president.

Bin Hammam is widely expected to run against Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, when the sport's world governing body holds elections in June, and Nohra said perhaps it is time for a shake-up in the hierarchy.

"I've worked with [Bin Hammam, a Qatari] for seven years and think very highly of him, not only because he is a personal friend, but because I have seen the changes he has made to the AFC and how he has revolutionised the way things happen here," said Nohra, who added he is unable to confirm whether Bin Hammam will definitely run

Nohra conceded Bin Hammam's expertise may not be particularly beneficial to Uefa, the European governing body, but that Fifa Executive Committee members - the delegates whose votes will decide the June 1 elections - must remember that Fifa is all-encompassing.

"It might be a limited learning process for Europe, but Fifa is not Europe. Fifa is the world and we have to use things that we have learnt in Asia and export it to parts of Africa, Central and South America," he said. "I also think a fresh outlook on things would come in handy - and that is not an indictment of Fifa, but rather just that sometimes change is good."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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