x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Asian Champions League: Fresh competition could be catalyst for Al Nasr

Walter Zenga's UAE Pro League side look to put their poor domestic form behind them against Sepahan.

Takayuki Marimoto is considered an expert finisher at Al Nasr. Jake Badger for The National
Takayuki Marimoto is considered an expert finisher at Al Nasr. Jake Badger for The National

Perceived wisdom claims a fresh competition provides a struggling club with unwanted distraction, yet for Al Nasr a second stint in the Asian Champions League could offer just the opposite.

There exists a precedent, after all. Last season, with the Dubai side chasing a top-four finish in the Pro League, Nasr entered their inaugural continental campaign with concerns surrounding the stretching of resources.

A limited squad, despite the continued contributions of foreign stars Mark Bresciano and Leonardo Lima, appeared ill-equipped to fight on dual fronts.

However, while Nasr predictably laboured against the considerable powers of Sepahan, the Iranians, and Al Ahli, the famed Saudi Arabian club, they gleaned a pair of victories from Lekhwiya of Qatar before retreating from the tournament on conclusion of the group stages.

Their Asian adventure, however brief, instilled a strong sense of achievement. For, in between Champions League commitments and until the end of the domestic season, Nasr would be defeated only once by a UAE rival, as Walter Zenga's men strode into second in the table. A runner-up finish had been secured.

Instead of wearying limbs and contaminating minds, the extra obligation seemed to spur Nasr to moderate success. For example, Amara Diane, the Ivorian striker, enjoyed a renaissance, when his strong end to season included eight goals in UAE competition and five in Asia.

Diane may have departed, but how Zenga will hope for a similar impact on the rest his squad now.

Nasr appear to be in temporary disarray: their Pro League push has imploded, with only four victories from 11 matches, while they have won just three times in nine Etisalat Cup encounters.

So their Champions League Group C opener against Sepahan in Iran looks to have landed at the worst possible juncture. The hosts represent a stiff examination of Nasr's ability to fireproof recent form, and were too strong for their UAE counterparts when they clashed twice in the pools last season.

Then come tests against Al Gharafa, replete with players of significant European experience - including Bresciano - and Ahli, who last year too took full points from Nasr en route to the final.

There are reasons for encouragement, though. In Giuseppe Mascara and Takayuki Morimoto, Nasr have expert finishers who shared success together in Italy's Serie A. Chances in the Champions League are typically scarce, but, should an opportunity arise, the former Catania pair can be expected to profit.

The absence of a playmaker in the Nashat Akram mould could hurt -the Iraqi was released last month - yet Lima has the requisite tools to influence.

"We cannot simply focus on the Champions League," said Zenga last week. "Because we're still capable of challenging for that second place."

That was before Thursday's defeat at Kalba, although perhaps an Asian assault could still prove a necessary distraction.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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