x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Helal Saeed was unsung hero in title triumph for Al Ain

A bit-part player for Al Jazira last season, the midfielder's return to Al Ain could not have worked out any better.

Helal Saeed, centre, emerged as one of Al Ain's key players this season. Mike Young / The National
Helal Saeed, centre, emerged as one of Al Ain's key players this season. Mike Young / The National

One year ago, Helal Saeed was a part-time player for Al Jazira. He played in only 10 Pro League games, usually when someone was hurt or being rested.

For the veteran midfielder, the season was a comedown. He had been part of five league championships at Al Ain and played for the 2007 UAE team who won the Gulf Cup. But in his third season with Jazira he appeared sporadically. Perhaps age was catching up to him; he was 34 years old.

After the season, in which Jazira won the league and President's Cup double, he considered retirement. Then he got a call from Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, the new chairman of the Al Ain board. He asked Saeed if he would return to the Garden City. Not wishing to disappoint, he agreed.

Saeed had come up through the Al Ain academy and spent 11 seasons with the first team. His prime coincided with the club's glory days: the five league titles, three President's Cups and, the big one, the 2003 Asian Champions League trophy.

He moved to Jazira, along with Subait Khater, ahead of the 2008/09 season. Now he would be returning to an Al Ain club rebuilding after a sorry season.

It could not have worked out better.

In his first season "back home", Saeed has turned in perhaps the finest season of his career and arguably the best 2011/12 campaign of any Emirati footballer.

He has been profoundly influential as a box-to-box central midfielder. He and Mirel Radoi, the Romanian, have made possible Al Ain tactics that somehow make for six in attack as well as six in defence.

Saeed pulls it off by running. At high speeds. For 90 minutes.

Liam Weeks, Al Ain's head of performance analysis, said Saeed "regularly covers 12.5 kilometres per match". In comparison, the average English Premier League midfielder covers 11.5km.

And the Emirati is not just loping along at a steady pace. He has a staggering number of sprints interspersed in his movement.

Weeks said the definition of a high-speed run is one in which a player runs 5.5 metres per second, and Saeed covers more than 1,500m per match at that speed. In England, the average midfielder sprints 1,150m per match.

"When you consider his age, and the environment he plays in here, Helal, he's knocking out some ridiculous numbers," Weeks said.

"I've watched him every week this season," he added, "and I would say he has been the best Emirati in the league."

"Most valuable" is always a difficult concept to pin down, but it is hard to imagine which Emirati has had a greater impact on his side than Saeed has at Al Ain.

He has not scored a league goal since 2010, but he made the passes that led to both of Yasser Al Qahtani's goals in the league-clinching 2-0 victory over Jazira last week. And, as usual, he appeared to be involved in every play.

Cosmin Olaroiu, Al Ain's Romanian coach, values the little veteran with the shaved head. "His winning mentality is part of him, and he runs more than any other player," Olaroiu said. "He's a good example for the young players."

Because he does not score goals or take free kicks, appreciating Saeed requires a certain attentiveness on the part of observers. Then, you see him break up an attack in his own end, and 10 seconds later make the incisive pass to Asamoah Gyan or Al Qahtani. And five minutes later, do it again.

Al Ain fans certainly have noticed. When he came off the pitch in the win over Jazira, Saeed received a standing ovation.

At Jazira, he was slipping into history. At Al Ain, he is making it. That is seven league medals for Hilal Saeed, 35 next week, and a season to treasure.


twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE