x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Al Ahli’s ‘outstanding players’ will find a way in ACL

Al Ain also believe they are prepared for the group stages, reports John McAuley.

Al Ahli knew they were always going to have a stiff challenge, playing in the Arabian Gulf League as well as the Asian Champions League. Satish Kumar / The National
Al Ahli knew they were always going to have a stiff challenge, playing in the Arabian Gulf League as well as the Asian Champions League. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // Al Ahli acknowledge they have been placed in a “group of death” for this season’s Asian Champions League, however the Arabian Gulf League leaders remain confident they can advance to the knock-out stages.

The Dubai club will next February embark on a Group D assignment against Al Sadd, the 2011 winners from Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, themselves two-time Asian champions, and Iran’s Sepahan, the side who twice defeated Al Nasr in last season’s tournament.

It is Ahli’s first appearance in the continental competition since 2010, yet the team supervisor, Abdulmajid Hussain, insists they are well-equipped to enjoy a successful campaign.

“We’re ready for the competition,” he said. “All resources were provided to the team during the preparations before the start of the season, because we knew we’d the Champions League in addition to local competitions.

“We’re fully prepared to face any opponent, however strong it may be. So Al Ahli are not afraid of the fact that it has fallen in the group of death, as some have described. We’ve outstanding players and great international experience.”

Hussain also called for the avoidance of the congested domestic fixture list that blighted UAE clubs’ participation last season. Ideally, he said each side should have four days between Arabian Gulf League matches and Champions League home fixtures, with an extra 24 hours allowed for away matches in Asia.

Al Ain, meanwhile, maintain their stock is high on the continent, irrespective of this season’s domestic travails. Currently sixth in the table, the UAE champions will expect to improve under coach Quique Sanchez Flores sufficiently enough to emerge in the New Year in better form, while they will be eager to atone for last year’s poor Asian campaign.

Then, Al Ain failed to make it out of the group. This time, they have been placed in Group C alongside Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Iran’s Tractorsazi Tabriz. The winners of the West play-off series two complete the pool.

Al Ain team manager, Matar Al Sahbani, said the club would fear no one, although he felt that, because Al Ain remain the only UAE side to be crowned champions of Asia – in 2003 - their opponents would not look forward to facing them.

“The draw was good for Al Ain,” he said. “Our reputation places the club in a favourable position among its competitors, no matter the circumstances. This is why the team has the respect of all teams, given its good record in the tournament.”

Al Sahbani added that Al Ain have worked hard to turnaround their fortunes, while he insisted the club have made Champions League success a priority.

“This isn’t the time to talk about the causes of the unsatisfactory start to the season, because there is intensive work on the pitch and at administration level to improve the team’s performance,” he said.

“Al Ittihad are a great club that has won the Asian championship twice. Tractorsazi Tabriz are also a good team that benefits greatly from huge fans’ support, especially at home.

“Even the winner of the play-off will enter the competition with legitimate ambitions. But Al Ain are capable of qualifying for the next stage.”

The UAE’s other representatives are Al Jazira, placed in Group B, and Baniyas, who to reach the groups must negotiate the preliminary rounds.

jmcauley@thenational.ae