x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cosmin Olaroiu is the restoration man at Al Ain

With a record-breaking 10th title within the club's grasp, Paul Oberjuerge looks at the Romanian with the placid personality and analytical mind who has revived the team. Audio interviews

Cosmin Olaroiu has overseen a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Al Ain.
Cosmin Olaroiu has overseen a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Al Ain.

Al Ain's wretched 2010/11 season ended on June 5 with the club only one position above the relegation zone. Two days later, Cosmin Olaroiu was named as the new coach.

"No one is happy about Al Ain's performance last season and it is a personal challenge for everyone and for me," the Romanian said in those early days. "We must work together. It is not easy at all. It needs more patience.

"But I am completely sure that Al Ain is able to relive the old, great days."

His words proved prescient. Tomorrow, Al Ain can secure their UAE-best 10th league championship if they defeat Al Jazira at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium. Even should they lose to the holders, they would have more opportunities to clinch the title.

Certainly, the resurgence of the nation's most decorated club has been a collective effort. A new board, led by Abdullah bin Mohammed, acted quickly and decisively by recruiting Olaroiu a month before the 2010/11 season ended.

The coach and the board then plotted the acquisitions of the Romanian midfielder Mirel Radoi, the Saudi striker Yasser Al Qahtani and the former Jazira midfielder Helal Saeed, and in September the gifted Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan joined the side on loan, and they have been nearly untouchable since.

Olaroiu has been the public face of the club's re-energised leadership, stalking the touch line as Al Ain have moved eight points clear at the top of the Pro League table in a campaign that has seen them lose only once in 18 matches.

Bin Mohammed said the season has re-established Olaroiu as one of the most-respected coaches in the region.

"Cosmin proved to everyone that he is the best in technical reading for matches, and his coaching skills and abilities," he said. "I think most clubs wish to contract with Cosmin, who has a great coaching fingerprint in all the teams he has coached."

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At age 42, the native of Bucharest has an impressive CV. In his native Romania, he took Steaua Bucharest to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in 2006, winning a group which included Sampdoria and Hertha Berlin, then ousting Herrenveen, Real Betis and Rapid Bucharest before falling to Middlesbrough, by a 4-3 aggregate score, in the last four.

The next season Olaroiu and Steaua Bucharest played in the Uefa Champions League, and they defeated Standard Liege to advance to the group phase, where they were third behind Lyon and Real Madrid.

By then, Olaroiu had caught the attention of more affluent clubs, and in 2007, at age 38, he moved to the big Saudi side Al Hilal for a significant rise in pay. His debut in the Gulf yielded a league championship and two Crown Prince Cups in 18 months.

Two subsequent years with the Qatar side Al Sadd yielded no trophies, but his reputation remained impressive enough to attract the attention of Al Ain's board, and hiring him was generally applauded by UAE pundits.

"We watch the Saudi league closely, and he was one of the best with Al Hilal," said Kefah Al Kaabi, a radio and television football analyst. "He's a very good leader, he's very stable and he knows what he wants.

"He chose four good foreign players, he brought Hilal Saeed back and now he has the championship after Al Ain were struggling to keep out of the second division a year ago. I definitely believe he is one of the best coaches in the region."

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Olaroiu wasted no time in moving forward. Before June was over, Al Ain were at a training camp in northern Italy, near the Austria border. In early September, he took the club to another training camp, in Doha.

"The team was low in confidence after the season we had last year," said Liam Weeks, Al Ain's head of performance analysis, "but he's really good at motivating and he's brought the best out of our players and got them believing in their abilities again."

Weeks has spent hours with Olaroiu this season because the former defender is a believer in the value of advanced metrics of the sort that Weeks compiles.

"Before every game we give him a report, and after every game we give him 50-odd pages with analysis of each player," Weeks said.

"I've dealt with six or seven coaches here, and he's been by far the most receptive. Some of the South Americans, it's like they're still in the Stone Age.

"It's a refreshing change to have someone who really wants to go into depth with the sort of analysis you would see with Premier League teams in England."

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Al Ain fans seem fond of their coach, who is under contract for at least one more season; they often chant "Cosmin! Cosmin!" at matches.

His size - he is nearly 1.90 metres in height - gives him something of an intimidating presence, but he is described as a gentle man not prone to anger.

He has, however, had a public spat with Diego Maradona that has lasted the whole of the season. It began in November, when Maradona described him as "rude" and "impolite" and Olaroiu made reference to the Argentine's former drug use and asked: "Who is Diego Maradona as a coach?"

Carlo Nohra, Al Ain's chief executive, said the comments were out of character for his coach, and was confident he would not repeat them. Significantly, perhaps, Maradona was fined for his comments; Olaroiu was not.

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Olaroiu is said to be fluent in English, but he conducts interviews in Romanian, and the translations into Arabic and English often come through as stilted and formal.

However, it is clear he is proud to have been part of Al Ain's return to form, and he is impatient for the club to secure the league championship. "I don't like prolonging this," he said.

He also has been pleased to see Al Ain's contributions to the national teams return to pre-2010/11 levels. "Now we have six or seven players, which is good for our team," he said. "I hope there will be more from our team pushing for a place in the national team."

But he is gracious enough, or perhaps perceptive enough, not to take too much credit for Al Ain's season, to date.

"It is easy to talk about what Al Ain were last season and what they are now, but it is not important to me," he said. "It is a matter of work, work and work for any team. That's how I would like to think of my time at Al Ain."

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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