x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pro League clubs can carry UAE team's momentum into Champions League

The four Emirati clubs in this season's Asian Champions League will be hoping to replicate the UAE national team's success in the Gulf Cup across the continent.

Omar Abdulrahman, right, and Alex Brosque will look to bring the Asian Chamions League back to Al Ain, who last won it in 2003. Jaime Puebla / The National
Omar Abdulrahman, right, and Alex Brosque will look to bring the Asian Chamions League back to Al Ain, who last won it in 2003. Jaime Puebla / The National

The year 2013 is so far proving to be a rosy one for UAE football.

In January, the senior national team swept all before them to win the Gulf Cup in Bahrain. Just last week came confirmation that four Emirati clubs will participate in this season's AFC Champions League group stages, which kick off on February 26.

The UAE's young players showed last month that they have what it takes to defeat the GCC's best on the international stage. At club level, meetings with fellow Arabian Gulf sides, many of which are stacked with foreign talent, will likely prove a tougher challenge - as will facing the best from the east of the continent.

In the group stage, Emirati teams will not encounter much variety. Al Jazira, Al Nasr and Al Ain will face teams from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran in groups A, C and D, respectively. Al Shabab, in Group B, are up against teams from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

All four Pro League sides will be hoping to carry the momentum and feel-good factor of the Gulf Cup victory into the group stages.

The conditions are particularly favourable for Al Ain. The 10-time league champions could not only win the Champions League this year, but they seem poised for a prolonged period of regional dominance.

Al Ain won the league last year by a margin of 14 points and such is their excellence again this season that they could better that finish come May.

Cosmin Olaroiu's team already lead the table by nine points, having won 12 and lost just one of their 14 matches this season.

Crucially, they now have a squad that can cope with fighting for trophies on four fronts. Playing two matches in a week has proved an Achilles heel for some of the top UAE clubs in the past, stretching their playing resources to the limit.

For Al Ain, that is no longer an acceptable explanation. The current squad are one of the strongest that any Pro League club has assembled in many years, and arguably one of the finest in Asia at the moment.

The Australian forward Alex Brosque, who scored the opener against Baniyas on Sunday, is proving to be one of the successes of the season with eight goals in 10 league appearances.

There were signs in the same match that the pace of the French striker Jires Kembo-Ekoko will give defenders problems at home and on the continent.

And Asamoah Gyan, back from an unsuccessful African Cup of Nations campaign with Ghana, will be hoping to pick up where he left off, domestically, and add to his already impressive tally of 21 club goals this season.

Above all, Al Ain have a jewel in their crown, the Gulf Cup hero Omar Abdulrahman. Superlatives are increasingly in short supply to describe his consistently brilliant performances, and it is intriguing to consider that, at the age of 21, the playmaker has not yet hit his peak.

It is thought the notion of "unfinished business" was a factor in his decision to stay at Al Ain last summer, after a week of training with English Premier League champions Manchester City. Success in the Asian Champions League is likely to be at the top of his agenda.

The wealth of talent and depth in Al Ain's squad means they can afford to rotate their top players in Pro League, Etisalat Cup or President's Cup matches before major Champions League ties, something not always possible in the past.

Expectations, however, must be managed, because of the higher calibre of opposition that Al Ain and the other Emirati teams can expect should the group stages be negotiated successfully.

The South Korean clubs, in particular, pose formidable obstacles, having won three of four titles since 2009 when the competition's format was changed from a two-legged final to a one-off match.

Al Ain have won the trophy before, the only UAE side who can make that claim. Led by Bruno Metsu, they defeated BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand in the 2003 final.

A decade on, the country's most successful club again have their eyes on the big prize. Gyan, speaking to The National before the African Cup of Nations, pointed to the AFC Champions League as one of the big challenges often overlooked by the many who questioned his move to Al Ain from English club.

For Gyan, Abdulrahman and Olaroiu, there might not be a better time than now for Al Ain to prove they are the finest in Asia.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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