Al Ain and Al Jazira, the UAE's remaining representatives in the 2014 Asian Champions League, will secretly be thankful that the round of 16 draw could have been far worse.
All-Emirati clash in Asian Champions League has silver lining
It has been a mixed week for the UAE’s three representatives at the 2014 Asian Champions League (ACL).
The early match days of the group stages had promised much; certainly compared to last year when only Al Shabab, of four Emirati teams, progressed to the knockout stages and fell at the first hurdle.
It was newly crowned Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ahli who had the biggest shock. Going into Tuesday’s last group match, the Dubai club topped Group D, but a defeat away to Al Sadd put an end to their participation in this year’s competition and to any hopes of completing an unprecedented quadruple of trophies in 2014.
The other two teams fared better.
Al Ain’s 1-1 home draw with Al Ittihad ensured they finished top of Group C, one point ahead of their Saudi rivals.
Meanwhile, Al Jazira’s 2-1 reverse at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium to another Saudi club, Al Shabab, left them second in their group, with inevitably regrettable consequences.
The outcome is that Walter Zenga’s men will face Zlatko Dalic’s Al Ain in an all-UAE last-16 tie. The first leg will be played in Abu Dhabi on May 6 with the return leg at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain a week later.
The bad news is that there will not be two UAE clubs in the quarter-finals but that is tempered by the fact the country is, for once, guaranteed one representative in the quarter-final.
Certainly, it might seem a slim silver lining, but it is one that has not been witnessed in some time.
No Emirati team has won a two-legged knockout tie since Al Wahda overcame Al Hilal on away goals in 2007. The UAE’s only other involvements in the knockout rounds after Al Ain’s triumph in 2003 came in 2012; Jazira losing 4-2 on aggregate to the Saudi side Al Ahli, and a 7-1 humiliation for Baniyas against Hilal.
“I would have preferred to play another club from another country in an international competition,” Zenga said. “But that didn’t happen. So we meet Al Ain and one team will have to head to the exit. I wish it will be Al Ain and not us.”
Both managers will know that the draw could have been far worse, however, especially with three heavyweight Saudi clubs lurking.
At least this is a seemingly balanced match-up that both Zenga and Dalic will fancy their chances in. Whichever team prevails will then go into the last eight with a renewed sense of confidence.
The quarter-finals will not kick off until the end of August and both clubs would have had three months, and a transfer window, to work on the problems encountered during the 2013/14 season. Of which, especially for Al Ain, there were many.
For now, a long trek to a foreign outpost at the end of the domestic season has been avoided.
For Dalic or Zenga, a continental clash will have to wait. But for the victors of next month’s all-Emirati showdown, further progress will involve journeys requiring passports and air travel.
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