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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

ACL tie against Al Hilal offers Al Ain's Douglas another shot at redemption

Brazilian forward back in from the cold - for Asian Champions League quarter-final against Al Hilal - after missed penalties cost him a place in UAE club's starting XI.

Al Ain's Douglas, in purple, has shown good form in the Arabian Gulf League, but he needs to raise his level in the continental championship. Christopher Pike / The National
Al Ain's Douglas, in purple, has shown good form in the Arabian Gulf League, but he needs to raise his level in the continental championship. Christopher Pike / The National

Maligned and sometimes mistreated, Douglas’s Al Ain career has been defined by the Asian Champions League.

It began with his tournament bow, in February last year, when he missed a penalty in the group opener against El Jaish. He later atoned from the spot, but moments from time, the Brazilian spurned a glorious opportunity to secure his side a point.

Al Ain were defeated and the team’s supporters took to social media to vent. Douglas, fresh into the club and into the country, promptly shut down his Instagram account.

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The disquiet continued through the coming weeks and months, despite Douglas performing admirably in the Arabian Gulf League (AGL). It reached its nadir in the second leg of the Champions League final in November, when just as momentum had swung towards Al Ain and right when they needed him most, Douglas blazed a penalty high over the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors crossbar.

With it, Al Ain’s chances of a second continental crown disappeared into the night. Jeonbuk held on, keeping the match level at 1-1 and the aggregate score at 3-2 in their favour. The South Koreans had sealed the title.

Douglas was deemed chief culprit, not the man for the grand occasion, not a legitimate replacement for Asamoah Gyan. But then again, who could be?

Shorn of confidence and shaken by the consequences of his latest miscalculation, soon Douglas disappeared from view. He was omitted from Al Ain's squad for the second half of the domestic season, with Nasser Al Shamrani preferred instead, arriving on loan from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

It just so happens that Hilal offers Douglas a shot at redemption. Al Ain host their Gulf rivals on Monday in the first leg of this year’s Champions League quarter-finals, their first competitive match of the new season. Back in from the cold – Douglas was allowed to leave Al Ain this summer – he will be charged with helping the club push forward to another final.

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To be fair, Douglas always had support at Al Ain. The club management continually backed him, even if that was all they could be seen to be doing. Zlatko Dalic, the Al Ain manager until February, repeatedly praised Douglas for his work ethic, for his commitment to the cause irrespective of the criticism. Mamic, Dalic’s replacement, has been impressed with the forward as well, so much so that he has routinely commended Douglas for his application and aptitude in training.

Douglas had, remember, scored 29 goals in 48 appearances for the club. In the AGL alone, his record reads 15 goals in 22 matches. Yet the Champions League represents a considerable step up, and thus far Douglas had failed to bridge the gap.

Hilal at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium provides the opportunity of a reprieve. It is significant, too, that Douglas does not go into the match as Al Ain’s main striker. Earlier this summer, the club signed Sweden international Marcus Berg, and it is he who will lead the line against Hilal and beyond. Douglas will operate in the space behind.

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That is where he has always felt most comfortable. Signed from Japan’s Tokushima Vortis following a hugely successful year on loan at Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Douglas excelled previously as a second striker. At Al Ain, he was thrust into a role as the team’s spearhead. After a rocky start, and burdened by expectation, he never truly recovered.

Douglas will have to improve, though. He will have to show that he is worthy of a place in the side, that Mamic’s faith in his ability is well placed, that his domestic record and his promising pre-season – he scored regularly in Al Ain’s friendlies – can be transferred to the continent’s biggest club stage.

The Champions League has always been what has defined him at Al Ain. Starting on Monday, Douglas will hope he can at last begin to alter the course of his path.

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