x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Ain in uncharted territory in Arabian Gulf League

As it enters a three-week break, the Arabian Gulf League is mostly settling into a familiar shape. Except for one club. Al Ain's dramatic loss of form as defending champions has been the story of the season so far. 

Al Ain have already suffered losses this campaign to Al Ahli in the Super Cup and to Al Shabab and Al Dhafra in the Arabian Gulf League. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad
Al Ain have already suffered losses this campaign to Al Ahli in the Super Cup and to Al Shabab and Al Dhafra in the Arabian Gulf League. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad

A Cosmin Olaroiu team top of the table. Asamoah Gyan leading the goalscoring charts. At the end of last season, Al Ain supporters would have welcomed such a start to the new one.

But as we enter a three-week break from league football, fans of the champions, having already seen their Romanian coach snatched by bitter rivals Al Ahli, will be feeling anything but upbeat at how the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League (AGL) season is shaping up.

Some things have not changed. Al Ahli continue to go from strength to strength, Al Nasr continue to disappoint.

How much longer, too, can Baniyas really be called a surprise package?

As for the shock of the season, that is easy; Al Ain’s stunning 4-3 away defeat to Al Dhafra at Hamdan bin Zayed Stadium on Friday.

Two goals by Gyan and Michel Bastos’s first in the UAE were cancelled out by a memorable second-half hat-trick from substitute Emmanuel Clottey and a goal from Makhete Diop.

The disbelieving looks on the faces of the Al Ain players, and fans, told its own story.

Watching on television, Quique Sanchez Flores, awaiting confirmation as successor to Jorge Fossati, would not have enjoyed what he saw one bit.

Al Dhafra deserve the acclaim. A decent showing last season saw them finish eighth in the table, and this upset of the champions now leaves them in the same position.

The manner of the result too, is indication that mid-table safety may not be the limits of their ambitions.

However, the story of the season so far has been Al Ain’s poor form.

A loss to Ahli in the Super Cup on penalties; one loss and one win in the League Cup; two losses – including Friday’s – and a solitary win in the league, which leave them ninth, six points adrift of Ahli, who top the table with a 100 per cent win record. It may not be a full-blown crisis yet, but it is more than cause for concern.

In hindsight, the Dhafra result has been a long time coming.

Since wrapping up last season’s title in April, it has all been downhill. Results tailed off badly, with only one win, on the last day of the season, in their last four matches as well as defeat in the President’s Cup semi-final to Ahli.

The summer then saw Olaroiu’s defection, as Al Ain’s fans have called it, to Ahli. His replacement, the Uruguayan Fossati, lasted just seven weeks in the job before being dismissed, allegedly for tactics deemed unworkable by the club’s management and players.

Now Sanchez Flores, touted for the job in the summer, has belatedly been brought in.

Few coaches have his tactical acumen and knowledge of UAE football, and if anyone can turn Al Ain’s season around it is the former Ahli and Valencia manager.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Al Ain kicked off last season with a chaotic 6-3 home defeat to Sanchez Flores’s Ahli and yet still strolled to a second title triumph in a row.

With three weeks before the AGL returns, nagging doubts will linger nonetheless.

When the action resumes on October 19, Al Ain will host third-from-bottom Dubai. A first win under Sanchez Flores will ease the fans’ worries.

Anything less than three points, however, and the murmurs of a crisis will develop into a full blown howls.

Meanwhile, Ahli will be looking to take advantage of their rival’s misfortune a day later when they take on bottom side Al Shaab at home.

The staff at the Rashed Stadium will not be getting ahead of themselves, aware that Baniyas, Al Wahda, and Al Wasl all scored four times in victories this weekend.

Still, Al Ain will be their primary concern. Olaroiu, more than anyone else, will know of his former club’s powers of recovery, and the importance of amassing a big points gap this early in the campaign.

Potentially, a nine-point gap after only four match days would leave Al Ain with a mountain to climb as they get used to the methods of a new coach, and soon, a new stadium too.

As the league settles into a familiar shape, Al Ain find themselves in unchartered waters.

No club with Sanchez Flores in charge, Omar Abdulrahman pulling the strings and Gyan and Bastos causing havoc up front, should struggle for too long.

Exactly how long it takes them to turn things around, though, could prove decisive if they are to have a crack at completing a hat-trick of league titles.

akhaled@thenational.ae