x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Al Ain are a champion side in full bloom after Pro League win for the Garden City

Al Ain's capturing of a second successive title suggests the club are ready to usher in a period of sustained success. Much depends, though, on the retaining of certain personnel.

A challenge that lies ahead is keeping the flock together at Al Ain. Satish Kumar / The National
A challenge that lies ahead is keeping the flock together at Al Ain. Satish Kumar / The National
An amble around Al Ain's Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium conjures memories of heady days gone by. On the walls of its corridors, past players embrace in celebration, festivities fostered by the fusion of talent and trophies; a princely period of purple reign, indeed.
Of course, Al Ain have long been a club steeped in success, those still-vivid images illustrating how they once ruled not only within this country's borders, but on the continent, too.
It was 2004, the Garden City green with Asian Champions League success and a ninth league title. Five had been collected in a seven-year span.
The 10th, though, was not added until late last April, when Al Ain finally banished years of underachievement with three games to spare. No 11 has followed rather more swiftly, achieved last night with four Pro League rounds remaining.
And so Al Ain are undoubted top dogs again. The question now is not whether they can once more dominate UAE football, but for how long?
The statistics, the most obvious point of reference, paint a positive prognosis. In their 22 matches last season, Al Ain won 17, drew four and were defeated only once. Predictably, they led the league in goals scored and boasted the measliest defence, figures sitting at 52 and 16, respectively.
After the same amount of fixtures this year, they have proved even more clinical: 19 victories, one draw and two defeats, three points better off. Again, the defence and attack are the division's most efficient, although it is up front where Al Ain have developed fastest.
Yesterday's 3-0 triumph against Dubai takes the goal tally to 70, significantly superior to Al Ahli, their closest rivals.
In Asamoah Gyan, Alex Brosque and Jires Kembo-Ekoko, coach Cosmin Olaroiu has an unrivalled front line in terms of prolificacy. Only last summer, each committed themselves to the club - Gyan making permanent an initial loan deal by signing for four years, Kembo-Ekoko penning a contract to 2016 and Brosque until the end of next season - which suggests a sustained boom.
Two other personalities could dictate the dominance, though. Omar Abdulrahman, the prodigious playmaker, is Al Ain's pulse; the conductor to the harmony around him.
Should he, as is expected, agree to a move away - the club board are this month hosting delegates from interested parties in Europe - then the future suddenly seems less optimistic. Replacing perhaps the most gifted UAE national in history would prove difficult.
"I'd happily play for Al Ain for years and years," the 21 year old said this week. "But my dream is to become a professional player in another country."
If Abdulrahman was to realise his dream, then Olaroiu's continued presence acquires greater importance. It is rumoured that the Romanian, as shrewd in the transfer market as he is on the touchline, has been approached by Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad, yet on Sunday he dismissed the speculation as exactly that.
"I am here at Al Ain and I want to win more trophies and championships with this team," he said.
However, it is believed much depends on the club's prolonged participation in this season's Champions League. It may just prove decisive.
But there is plenty to keep him at Al Ain. The squad is robust, with Fares Juma, Ismail Ahmed and Mohaned Salem excellent in central defence, while Mohammed Ahmed is arguably the country's most accomplished right-back. All four are UAE internationals.
Further forward, Ali Al Wehaibi, Mirel Radoi and the indefatigable Helal Saeed provide experience and big-game expertise. At 35, though, Saeed cannot go on forever.
Yet Al Ain have plenty in reserve, as evidenced by last month's Etisalat Cup victory at Al Shaab.
There they deployed what was effectively an Under 19 side against a Pro League XI, with Yousef Ahmad, the 18-year-old striker, burnishing an already worthy reputation. Recent cameos in the league have further elevated his status.
Granted, creating a dynasty in these most capricious of environs - the UAE has endured seven different champions since Al Ain last secured successive titles - is no certainty and its existence hinges on who begins 2013/14 at the club.
However, football consensus states that defending a championship is always harder than winning one, and Al Ain have cruised through unscathed.
As Olaroiu stated at this season's inception: "I told the players, 'Now we have started winning trophies, we have to continue'."
His charges have done just that. They appear sturdy enough to recapture those heady days of the not-too-distant past.
jmcauley@thenational.ae