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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Al Ain deserve to regain Arabian Gulf League title – their record speaks for itself

They have outscored everyone in the division, conceded fewer than all of the 13 clubs below them. These are among a few reasons why the Garden City club deserve trophy. John McAuley explains.
Al Ain have been consistent all season. Satish Kumar / The National
Al Ain have been consistent all season. Satish Kumar / The National

So Al Ain have again taken their place at the summit of UAE football, champions for the 12th time, Arabian Gulf League trophy secured with three matches to spare.

They have outscored everyone in the division, conceded fewer than all of the 13 clubs below them. No one has avoided defeat more often; nobody else has managed to remain unbeaten at home.

Quantifiably, Al Ain are the country’s finest side for the third time in four years. Yet the path to their perch has not been without obstacles. That squad, now without question the most talented in the league, has been stretched and it has been strained.

Dual campaigns at home and abroad had still taken their toll. The season has felt like a perpetual flutter between Asian Champions League commitments and domestic assignments. A case in point: Al Ain began 2014/15 later than their rivals, afforded additional preparation for the continental semi-final with Al Hilal. The return leg, two weeks later, delayed the home fixture with Fujairah, as well. As a result, Al Ain have played catch-up for the entire first half of the season.

They did it, too, for large parts without Omar Abdulrahman and Asamoah Gyan.

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Principle points in Zlatko Dalic’s side, the pair have featured in nine and 14 league matches, respectively, sometimes only from the bench. Abdulrahman, in particular, has flitted in and out of the team, so much so that the home match with Al Shabab on February 4 marked his first club appearance in four months.

It was only his second league appearance of the season. Almost predictably, he departed the pitch early, clutching his hamstring.

Yet Al Ain have refused to be hamstrung by the absences. Deprived of key players at crucial periods, they have found a way to prosper, have exhibited a champions’ resolve. When fifth-placed Al Ain hosted Wahda, the league leaders and a side unbeaten in 20 matches, in December, they were without Abdulrahman, Gyan, Jires Kembo Ekoko and a selection of first-team players. They still emerged with a victory. It was 4-0.

Within four days, Luis Garcia had watched Al Ain defeat his Baniyas side 3-0 and move second. The Spaniard declared his conquerors champions-elect. The following week, Al Ain took top spot for the first time. They relinquished it just once since - to Al Jazira - but having reclaimed the apex on February 28, Al Ain have not looked back.

So how has a side hit by injuries and national team call-ups – Al Ain had eight players at the November Gulf Cup and seven at January’s Asian Cup - and hindered by a congested fixture schedule, still managed to seal the title?

There are a multitude of reasons, some dating to last summer and beyond. For a start, Al Ain avoided the debacle that preceded their 2013/14 campaign, when they dismissed Jorge Fossati on the eve of the season. He had lasted 49 days.

By the time Dalic was appointed in February – he succeeded Quique Sanchez Flores – Al Ain were sixth in the standings. However, the Croat oversaw a 15-match unbeaten run, culminating in victory in the President’s Cup final and a prolonged venture in the Champions League. Confidence was restored, belief rebuilt.

Shrewd signings followed: Lee Myung-joo and Miroslav Stoch to bolster the first team, Rashid Essa and Mohammed Fawzi to thicken the squad. Kembo Ekoko was recalled from his loan spell in Qatar.

Stoch and Kembo Ekoko, along with a revitalised Ibrahim Diaky, have shared the load up front, carried the burden when Abdulrahman and Gyan have been unavailable. The trio have contributed 25 of Al Ain’s 60 goals this season. Their defence has not been neglected either, solidified by Mohammed Fayez’s return to fitness. In all areas, Al Ain boast experience and expertise, pace and poise.

The manager and management deserve credit, especially for not allowing September’s Champions League semi-final exit to fester. Also, the players have used last season’s meek surrender to spur this year’s boon. Wounded and made weary by 2013/14, motivation through 2014/15 has been maintained.

It has helped that, unlike previous title bids, Al Ain have had a genuine challenger until late in the campaign. But once they hit their stride, the first bona fide title race since 2009 disappeared as quickly as Al Ain over the horizon. Out of sight and out in front, a 12th UAE championship is rightfully theirs.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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