Al Ain can finally smile after a dismal AGL season
How Al Ain’s fans enjoyed getting the last laugh. Over their critics, their bitter rivals, and above all, the manager who walked out on them last year.
Al Ain’s 1-0 win over Al Ahli in the President’s Cup final at Zayed Sports City on Sunday night ensured they did not end the season empty-handed. Just as importantly, it prevented their opponents from recording an unprecedented treble of domestic trophies.
No one at Al Ain, certainly not the management, will be fooled that all is suddenly rosy at the club. Al Ain’s Arabian Gulf League campaign was nothing short of dismal following back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. A dramatic cup win can gloss over a poor campaign, but major work needs to be done in the summer.
And yet, this win can also serve as a genuine kick-start to a stalling project. The club only has to look at their opponents from Dubai to see the benefits of a cup win.
In 2012/13, Al Ahli’s league campaign was not too dissimilar to Al Ain’s over the last eight months. The club finished in fifth, a massive 21 points behind the champions from the Garden City. And yet a penalty shoot-out win over Al Shabab in the Etisalat Cup arguably set them on the road to long-term recovery, which reaped a President’s Cup triumph last year, and the Arabian Gulf League and League Cup titles this season after Cosmin Olaroiu moved over as manager.
This is the level of trophy-stocking Al Ain fans had become used to over the last few years, and will now be eyeing over the coming seasons. For now, the gloom has momentarily been lifted, and for that, Zlatko Dalic deserves massive credit.
He took over a club in turmoil when Quique Sanchez Flores was dismissed in March. Al Ain’s tit-for-tat appointment of the former Al Ahli coach failed to produce the desired effect, although the Spaniard deserves credit for leading the club to Sunday’s final.
Only days after being appointed Al Ain’s new technical supervisor, Dalic was thrown in at the deep end. He did not disappoint.
In the 14 AGL and Asian Champions League matches since, they lost only twice.
Yesterday’s win capped a 13-match unbeaten run that has also included progress into the Asian Champions League quarter-finals.
The cup heroics mean they have now also confirmed qualification into the continent’s premier competition in 2015.
Having moved into the brand new Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in January, Al Ain will be hoping next season will kick off a new era of success. Dalic deserves to be the one leading them there.
A lot will depend on keeping their stars and adding more quality to the squad. There is little doubt that Al Ahli has become the most-prized destination for not only the top foreign players, but for many Emiratis as well.
Reversing that trend, and returning Al Ain to what the club believes is their rightful place as “The Home of UAE football”, will be a tough task for Dalic.
Still, the signs, thanks to that brilliant end to the season, are positive. The President’s Cup triumph comes hot on the heels of last week’s qualification to the last eight of the Asian Champions League, which will resume in August.
Star players, too, have shown a welcome and timely return to form after a collectively poor first half to the season, especially star man Omar Abdulrahman who had to overcome a series of injuries, and Asamoah Gyan, who once again finished the season as the country’s stop scorer.
As last night’s match entered its dying minutes, Abdulrahman urged Al Ain’s fans to raise the roof. They responded immediately, signalling the start of a party likely to carry on for some weeks.
Once the dust settles however, they, as much as Dalic and the club’s management, will realise that becoming the UAE’s top club again will have to wait for another 12 months at least.
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