x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Ain coach Alexandre Gallo looks to turn club's luck around

It has been a bad month for Al Ain, the UAE's most decorated football club, but they hope to turn their ailing fortunes around by qualifying for the Asian Champions League.

Bad has turned to worse at Al Ain. The country's most decorated club are winless in 11 Pro League matches since September 3, are at risk of being relegated for the first time in their history, were kicked out of the President's Cup this week for using an ineligible player and have spent a futile month attempting to find a third foreigner to join the squad.

Some of that woe can be ameliorated tomorrow if Al Ain win a particularly exotic Asian Champions League (ACL) qualifying match.

The site is Palembang, on the island of Sumatra, in the nation of Indonesia, and at stake is a place in the group stage of the ACL, a tournament Al Ain won in the halcyon days of 2003.

A victory puts Al Ain in Group F of the ACL, along with Hangzhou Greentown of China, FC Seoul and Nagoya Grampus of Japan, and guarantees six matches.

"The Champions League is a very big competition," Alexandre Gallo, Al Ain's Brazilian coach, said. "We have done everything to prepare the team. But it will be hard."

Sriwijaya defeated Muangthorn United of Thailand 7-6 in their previous round of qualifying.

"A person from our staff went to see the game and they are very fast," Gallo said of Sriwijaya. "The weather is already very hot and humid and they will have a big crowd. So we expect some difficulties.

"We will continue to work, work, work to get out of the bad situation we are in now."

Al Ain made what was expected to be an eight-hour, two-leg journey yesterday from the UAE to Jakarta and then on to Palembang.

Al Ain earned a shot at the ACL on the strength of their third-place finish in the Pro League last season. But because of a surfeit of clubs in the western half of group play, including Al Wahda, Al Jazira and Emirates from the UAE, Al Ain were sent to battle for a berth in the eastern side of the tournament.

Al Ain supporters could point to the surprise departure, last summer, of the Chilean midfielder Jorge Valdivia and the Brazilian forward Marcio Emerson, as the source of the club's subsequent difficulties. Al Ain's attempts to replace the South Americans yielded players of modest talents who were soon felled by injury and a season that began with two victories has since yielded six defeats, five draws and the sacking of the coach Abdulhameed al Mishtiki.

Gallo has pushed to transform Al Ain from what he termed "a long-ball" club to a quick-passing side which can hold the ball and pull apart opposition defences.

Jose Sand, who led the Pro League in scoring last season with 23 goals, has been sent on loan to Deportivo la Coruna of Spain and the Brazilian Elias Ribiero, a smaller, quicker forward, was added.

Gallo's plans for a restyled Al Ain have been slowed by injuries. Omar Abdulrahman, the national team midfielder and the engine of the Al Ain attack, left the Al Nasr game at half time with an injury, and earlier the midfielder Rami Yaslam went off with a knee injury. Sriwijaya, winners of Indonesia's equivalent of the FA Cup, are attempting to become the second Indonesian club in the ACL group phase, joining the Super League champions Arema FC of Java.

Sriwijaya are coached by the Bulgarian Ivan Kolev and built around a trio of foreigners, the prolific St Kitts winger Keith Gumbs, 38, who has scored 44 goals in 68 appearances with the club, and the central defenders Diano from Brazil and Thierry Gautessi from Cameroon.

Historically, this would be a match the UAE team would be expected to win. But Indonesia is a rising football nation while the UAE's four representatives in the 2010 ACL each finished at the bottom of their respective groups.

Carlo Nohra, the chief executive of the Pro League, said it is important for the league's team to produce results.

"The Champions League is a gauge of how we are doing relative to our neighbours," he said. "The last two seasons we have not done well at all, so it is important that we do well this year, as it will be a sign that technically we are improving."