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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Al Ain talking points: Marcus Berg needs time to adjust and defence requires a rejig 

With Mohanad Salem suspended Zoran Mamic must shuffle his pack when Al Ain travel to Saudi Arabia for second leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final.

Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman during the Asian Champions League quarter-final first leg against Al Hilal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Monday, August 21, 2017. Courtesy Al Ain FC
Al Ain captain Omar Abdulrahman during the Asian Champions League quarter-final first leg against Al Hilal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Monday, August 21, 2017. Courtesy Al Ain FC

On Monday, Al Ain drew 0-0 at home in the first leg of their Asian Champions League quarter-final against Al Hilal. We look at five main takeaways for last year’s runners-up.

Omar and Mohammed, brothers in arms

Typically, Omar Abdulrahman was Al Ain’s chief creator. The UAE playmaker’s talents are well known: he is Asia’s reigning Player of the Year, the current Champions League’s top goalscorer (seven) and top of the assists charts (six), too. Against Hilal, he was again his side’s main influence, going close with a long-range effort and a superb free kick. Also, he had fine support throughout from brother Mohammed. The midfielder lined up centrally alongside Ahmed Barman, putting in an impressive display, hassling and harrying, and joining his sibling and teammates in attack. He had the first effort at goal, two minutes in. It is a slightly different role for Mohammed Abdulrahman, but he proved he can still work well in tandem with Omar.

Al Ain's Mohamed Abdulrahman, left, and Al Hilal's Matias Britos Cardoso during the Asian Champions League first-leg quarter-final on Monday, August 21st, 2017 at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain's Mohamed Abdulrahman, left, and Al Hilal's Matias Britos Cardoso during the Asian Champions League first-leg quarter-final on Monday, August 21st, 2017 at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Sharp-shooter Berg simply needs time

Al Ain’s marquee summer signing, Marcus Berg was given a desperately difficult debut. The Sweden international had spent the past four years in Greece with Panathinaikos, then pre-seasoned with Al Ain in Austria – in rather pleasant weather conditions. Berg’s first official appearance was played in 39°C heat at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, so it was little wonder he looked exhausted before being substituted on 69 minutes. However, Berg showed in glimpses enough to suggest he will soon link up well with Omar Abdulrahman, something missing from the side since the goal-glut days of Asamoah Gyan. Manager Zoran Mamic said post-match there is much more to come from Berg, and revealed the striker was still sprawled in the dressing room, shattered. Welcome to the UAE, eh?

Al Ain forward Marcus Berg, right, was substituted on 69 minutes against Al Hilal. Karim Sahib / AFP
Al Ain forward Marcus Berg, right, was substituted on 69 minutes against Al Hilal. Karim Sahib / AFP

Lee is missed, but Shiotani is able

He was an ever-present, an ever-eager midfielder who rarely missed a beat. During his three years in Al Ain, Lee Myung-joo became a firm fans’ favourite, mostly for his all-action displays in the centre of the pitch. However, Lee returned to his native South Korea this summer, primarily to complete national service, although he has since signed for FC Seoul. He has been replaced as Al Ain’s Asian player by Tsukasa Shiotani, the versatile Japanese midfielder who can perform on the pitch in several positions. Shoitani had a promising debut, starting out wide in defence, then gravitated towards the middle once Al Ain were reduced to 10 men. He blocked and intercepted well. All in all, he appears a more than useful addition.

Al Ain poses for a team photo before kick off at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain poses for a team photo before kick off at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Douglas has found a new groove

Monday was a huge test for Al Ain, but perhaps more for Douglas than anyone else. Granted, Al Ain had two debutants in Berg and Shiotani, yet the Brazilian was back on the stage that had hurt him most. In fact, it had threatened to curtail his Al Ain career. Douglas missed what proved a crucial penalty in the second leg of last year’s final as his side missed out on the trophy they crave above all others. Douglas was the scapegoat, and from January onwards was deregistered for the domestic season. Provided a way back in by Mamic, he excelled against Hilal in a more withdrawn role, and almost had a goal to mark a long-awaited but initially unlikely return. As his manager lauded, Douglas displayed remarkable character.

Al Ain striker Douglas and Al Hilal's Salman Alfaraj, right. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain striker Douglas and Al Hilal's Salman Alfaraj, right. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Al Ain’s defence requires a rejig

Mohanad Salem departed the pitch with head bowed, before raising a hand to convey his apologies to the Al Ain support. The centre-back was exiting early, a second booking acquired following a rash challenge on Salman Al Faraj. As such, Al Ain had to play the remaining 25 minutes with 10 men. Salem is suspended for the second leg. Khalid Abdulrahman collected another yellow card too, meaning Al Ain will be without two of the four defenders who began Monday’s match. It requires a rethink from Mamic, although Al Ain did welcome back UAE international centre-back Ismail Ahmed as a late substitute. Shiotani, also, can deputise wide, as can Bandar Al Ahbabi. Not ideal, Salem will hope he gets a chance to atone come the semi-finals.

Al Ain's Mohanad Salem, centre left, is sent off against Al Hilal. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Al Ain's Mohanad Salem, centre left, is sent off against Al Hilal. Chris Whiteoak / The National