Al Ain and Marcus Berg must dig deep for further Fifa Club World Cup success after Team Wellington triumph
After a stunning recovery on Wednesday the challenge for the Arabian Gulf League champions is to raise themselves to face Esperance de Tunis on Saturday in the quarter-finals
Back in the summer, a short clip of Marcus Berg’s young son Leonel’s emotional response to seeing his dad play at the World Cup in Russia was widely viewed in cyberspace.
A few months on, and at another version of a World Cup, he was unwittingly afforded more air time. At half-time in the opening round match between Al Ain and Team Wellington on Wednesday night, the TV cameras zoomed in on the youngster in the stands at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, proudly wearing his Al Ain shirt.
He had again been moved to tears, this time as the team were facing almost certain exit, trailing as they were 3-1 to a team of players performing feats far beyond their amateur status.
And father Marcus had not even made it onto the field yet. The Sweden striker was a conspicuous absentee when the starting XIs were announced, given he is Al Ain’s most productive source for goals.
He had, however, been laid low for a day or so by a virus. Zoran Mamic, the Al Ain manager, had toyed with the idea of starting his attacking star and seeing how much he could extract from his weary body, but feared he might only manage 30 minutes.
Better, the manager felt, to save whatever game time Berg could manage, till the business end of the fixture.
The ploy might have appeared entirely flawed when Team Wellington went 3-0 up, via a sensational strike from distance by Mario Barcia – “an unbelievable goal, bravo,” Mamic said after – then further goals from Aaron Clapham and Mario Ilich.
After Tsukata Shiotani and Tong Doumbia had reduced the arrears to 3-2, Mamic risked Berg with 12 minutes left. The man whose goals fired Al Ain to the Arabian Gulf League title last season, and thus a place in this competition, needed two sighters – as he headed wide – before levelling and taking the game to extra-time.
A little over half an hour later, Berg actually missed his penalty in the shoot-out, firing over the bar. But he had done his bit by getting off his sick bed and giving his side their lifeline.
And Al Ain won 4-3 on penalties, anyway, so all is well that ends well for the home representatives at the Club World Cup.
Quite what effect the great escape against Wellington will have on the host team when they line up for their second match against Esperance de Tunis on Saturday evening remains to be seen.
There is certain to be availability issues. Mohammed Abdulrahman was shown a red card for a tired lunge late in extra-time on Werdnesday, so the midfielder will definitely be absent against Esperance.
And a three-day turnaround is a short recovery period for a set of players who played an emotional 120 minutes on Wednesday.
Even Berg will be feeling it, despite his appearance only really being a cameo. Mamic had wanted to try his striker for 15 minutes. In the end, given the additional time, he played 45.
But it also stands to reason Al Ain’s players will also feel emboldened by the way they returned from the brink on opening night. Al Jazira, their AGL rivals, showed few ill-effects from a similar workload when they played in the competition last year, and rose to the occasion instead.
Mamic, the Croatian in charge of the host team, said the manner of the comeback shows the resilience of his side, and he is hopeful ahead of the game against the African champions from Tunisia.
“It means there is big, big character in my team, and big confidence in my team,” Mamic said.
“You cannot say every day that you will comeback from 3-0 down, but it is a great thing. It is great for our next game, but the next game will of course be different.
“We have to use these three days for good recovery, to make a plan for this game, and to try to play a good match, to try to get into the next round. Everything is possible.
“We believe. We believed in the second half [against Wellington] we could come back, and we did. Bravo to the team.”
Updated: December 13, 2018 09:17 PM