Al Ain ready for group stage after securing Asian Champions League spot with play-off win over Malkiya
Al Ain progressed to the group stage of the Asian Champions League (ACL) on Tuesday night, thanks to second-half goals from Marcus Berg and Caio, as the Arabian Gulf League side beat Malkiya of Bahrain 2-0 at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Berg ended what was turning out to be a long wait for the home fans when, on 53 minutes, he scored Al Ain's first goal off a low cross from Egyptian midfielder Hussein El Shahat. Caio added the second goal eight minutes later when he headed in a Bandar Al Ahbabi cross.
Al Ain manager Zoran Mamic was predictably relieved after the match.
“The game against Malkiya was tough. It took our players a while to score, but once they did, we had control of the game,” Mamic said. “We are glad we qualified for the group stage of this competition.
"We have played at this level in the past and looking forward for another campaign at this level. The first two games [in the group stage] that starts in two weeks will be very crucial for us.”
Indeed, Al Ain join a tough Group D with their first game against Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia on February 13 at Prince Faisal bin Fahad Stadium in Riyadh. They then face Qatar’s Al Rayyan a week later. The other team in the group are Esteghlal of Iran.
The UAE will be represented by three other teams in the competition: Al Jazira in Group A, Al Wahda in Group B and Al Wasl in Group C.
That Mamic's side could actually play on Tuesday night was down to the fact a certain football club in Dubai could not.
Al Ain had finished fourth in the Arabian Gulf League last season, and they only made the Champions League play-off round because of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai's failure to obtain the Asian Football Confederation licence. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, a club formed last summer, did not have the three-year requirement necessary to qualify for the ACL.
So naturally, Mamic was thrilled about this twist of fate.
“At the beginning, the ACL wasn’t in our agenda," the Croat said. "So this was an opportunity to play in the continental championship. Now that we progressed to the group stage, we want to make it count."
The manager conceded his team now had the more difficult task of challenging for two titles, rather than one, before adding "we’ll take that as a positive".
“To play in the continental championship is the objective of every club and we’ll take it from here. It’s another great opportunity for us to play in the continental championship."
Malkiya manager Ahmed Al Dakheel, meanwhile, looked on the brighter side after their defeat.
Al Dakheel said it was a new experience for his side playing in the continental championship after they won their first domestic trophy last season.
“We knew we were up against a side that won this title once and were twice runner up,” he said. “I think we still played well and we created a few chances. We couldn’t score which is another matter. But for sure, it was a learning curve for us and we’ll take this experience forward.”
Al Ain had the best chance of breaking the deadlock in the first half. El Shahat rolled the ball towards an empty net but Soriola Gege, Malkiya’s Nigerian centre-back, came in a flash to clear it from the goal-line with a minute left for half time.
Malkiya had their chances, too. Isa Al Bari’s header off a long ball from Sayed Issa bounced in front of the goalmouth but was cleared by Al Ain keeper Khalid Eisa on 20 minutes.
Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman sent one wide of the far post from inside the area at the other end four minutes later.
The visitors came close again and this time Eisa did well to push out a chipped effort from close range by Sayed Hashim, and Al Ain’s Brazilian forward Caio’s effort from inside the box was smothered by Issa.