x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Pro League champions Al Ain face new set of challenges

The Garden City club and defending domestic champions aim to not just remain kings of the Pro League. They want to also reign on the continent, writes John McAuley

Mohammed Ahmed, left, and his Al Ain teammates aim to not just rule in the Pro League again but also want to challenge on the continent.
Mohammed Ahmed, left, and his Al Ain teammates aim to not just rule in the Pro League again but also want to challenge on the continent.

Following an uncertain season in 2010/11, when the threat of relegation loomed large, Al Ain stood at a crossroads.

The Garden City had not welcomed home a league-winning side since 2004, a time when the club could claim categorically to be the best in Asia, too. Back then a ninth UAE title continued a remarkably prolific period, the fifth league crown gleaned from seven significantly successful seasons.

Then came the drought. Three President's Cup trophies barely sated the appetite of the most vociferous supporters in the country as their side's title count failed to climb into double digits.

The club needed reinvigoration.

A new board, headed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, sought revolution.

Cosmin Olaroiu, the sturdy Romanian with an emergent yet convincing CV, was appointed as the coach, and the squad burnished with accomplished foreign players in Asamoah Gyan, Yasser Al Qahtani and Mirel Radoi.

Confidence was quickly restored.

Nine victories from their opening 11 games last season suggested title No 10 was imminent, and April's 2-0 win against Al Jazira, then champions, confirmed it with three matches to spare.

Al Ain were back in the limelight.

Now they must prove they are capable of staying there.

Summer recruitment has not gone entirely according to plan.

Gyan, the league's most prolific marksman last season, may have made his loan move permanent from the English Premier League side Sunderland, but Al Qahtani, the Saudi Arabia striker who chipped in with some vital goals, and Ignacio Scocco, the influential Argentine, have returned to their native leagues.

Proficient replacements have proved difficult to find. Lyon's Michel Bastos was pursued with intent throughout the transfer window, yet Al Ain would not match the €10 million (Dh48m) asking price demanded by the French club.

Park Chu-young, the South Korean in England with Arsenal, decided against a move to Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, preferring to remain in Europe.

Instead, Jires Kembo-Ekoto joined from Ligue 1 side Rennes. He made an impressive debut in the Super Cup victory on Monday, but replacing Al Qahtani will be no easy task.

An Asian player, to complete their foreign contingent, has yet to join, although the club claim a deal is imminent.

However, such dawdling, especially when the majority of their rivals have long finished trading, has fostered a certain anxiety.

Carlo Nohra, Al Ain's chief executive, said the club's transfer activity "has not gone the way we would have liked".

He said: "I have no idea why, but all the things are handled quite delicately and carefully by the chairman and a few members of the board."

Even Olaroiu, appearing somewhat downbeat on the eve of the Super Cup, conceded "we are not strong like last year" before revealing he had seen Omar Abdulrahman, the playmaker who carries much of this season's expectations, only "twice in four months".

Senior voices within the club appeared relaxed, however.

The addition of Mohammed Ahmed and Yaqoub Al Hosani, both UAE national team defenders, has given credence to the belief Al Ain will boast an even stingier defence; they conceded a league-low 16 goals last season.

And the potential for having a fit Abdulrahman for the whole of the campaign is a cause for optimism, too.

"Omar's back and looking healthy," said Liam Weeks, the head of performance analysis at the club. "He missed most of last season through injury, and to have him ready for the start of the campaign and available for the entire season is almost like having an extra foreign player.

"In my opinion, Omar is by far the best player in the country."

Abdulrahman's participation will need to be carefully managed and the squad has been augmented, maybe with that in mind, with the promotion to the first team of the youngsters Fares Jumaa, Fawzi Fayez, Salem Abdullah, Musallam Fayez and Abdulla Sultan Salam.

The club feel the pool of talent, despite the delay in adding an Asian player, still ranks as the deepest in the UAE.

"Cosmin asked for players in specific positions and the management did their best to get those who could add value, but sometimes the rewards don't equal the efforts made," said Mohammed Obaid Hammad, the team supervisor.

"However, our local players showed a high level of performance last season when foreign players were absent."

Of course, this season Al Ain fight on four fronts. The league, Etisalat Cup and President's Cup will provide their own, familiar examinations, but the Asian Champions League represents a fresh challenge. It figures prominently on their list of priorities.

"Next season, do we target Asia or the local league? For us, for sure, it's Asia," Awad Al Darmaki, a member of the board, told The National in May. The Emirati confirmed superior reinforcements would be required, but made it clear Al Ain aim to be crowned the continent's finest, just like they were in 2003.

"Our supporters would love to see us on the top step in the continent, they know we have done it before. If we win the [Champions League] ... we could be the biggest club in Asia."

The pressure is firmly on.

Granted, confidence is high following a successful pre-season - Al Ain defeated the Primera Liga sides Getafe and Rayo Vallecano during their Spanish training camp - and then won the Super Cup, but the Champions League constitutes a considerable increase in challenge.

Therefore, mastering expectations could be equally as important as maintaining the fitness of a squad whose players have had little rest this summer.

An elongated league comprising 14 teams will put more strain of the susceptible limbs of Abdulrahman, whose past few months have been spent as the standout in various forms of the UAE national team.

Gyan, and a host of the side's other players, have also been distracted recently by international commitments.

"If we won the league last season we're supposed to be one of the favourites this year," Olaroiu said. "But remember, I had Gyan only for two days before the Super Cup, and Omar for three. We had the national team players come a few days before, and there are players missing through injury.

"When we get them all back we can improve many things in our play and be a candidate again for winning the league."

The problem is Al Ain are not merely contenders, they stand alone as favourites. Such a reputation comes at a price, as Pro League opponents Jazira - "the strongest team in the UAE", Olaroiu said - Al Nasr, last year's runners-up, and the fast improving Al Ahli have made appreciable efforts in the hope of knocking Al Ain from their perch.

"Our coming task will be different to last season's because competitors always look at the champions differently, see beating the champions as a championship in itself," said Ismail Ahmed, the Al Ain defender. "We have a special test ahead to keep the trophy in Al Ain. It will not be easy."

Olaroiu says his mind remains solely on Sunday's arduous opener against Ahli, when attention will no doubt be fixed on his side, the 10-time UAE champions, to see if they have the resources to usher in another period of domination.

"It is important for us to understand last season is finished. We need to start focusing on the league from now on," said Olaroiu, acutely aware anything other than retaining the title will be regarded as failure.

"I told the players, 'Now we have started winning trophies, we have to continue'."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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