x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Red Knights aim for Asian domination

Al Ahli, the Dubai club, have re-hired coach Hasek and picked a new-look squad with a long-term vision to be continental champions.

The return of Ivan Hasek, in yellow, as the Al Ahli coach has fuelled hopes of a recovery after two poor seasons following his exit. Hasek had guided Al Ahli to the league title in 2009.
The return of Ivan Hasek, in yellow, as the Al Ahli coach has fuelled hopes of a recovery after two poor seasons following his exit. Hasek had guided Al Ahli to the league title in 2009.

Al Ahli can certainly not be accused of lacking ambition.

A year after the bold yet aborted experiment of Fabio Cannavaro as their star player and David O'Leary as the coach, the Dubai club have overhauled their playing squad and their coaching staff and recalibrated their targets.

Despite failing to even qualify for the Asian Champions League this season, the club are already plotting an assault on next season's continental showpiece.

"Winning the league is not the end of our ambitions," Abdullah Saeed Al Naboodah, the club chairman, said. "We want to be the champions of Asia, so we still have a long way to go. I hope this will be the season for us. We have put in a lot of hard work, but it takes time and it will not be easy."

Hope has been fuelled by the return of Ivan Hasek as coach. Ahli, nicknamed the Red Knights, have slipped badly since Hasek guided them to the President's Cup title in 2008, and then the league title the following season.

"Before the start of the league here, every team thinks they will be champions and this is very peculiar to the UAE," Hasek said. "Having said that, I believe we have the team that should be able to bring the smiles back to our fans."

One of Hasek's first moves was to make Mohammed Qassim his captain.

"Of course, we all know it is going to be a tough season, but we have a very good team, a very good coach and I believe Ahli will be the team to beat," Qassim said. "If we want to win the league, we should be willing to die on the field for the team, the club and the fans, and we are ready to do that."

Hasek has been followed through the door at the Rashed Stadium by Grafite, the 2009 German Footballer of the Year, Jakson Avelino Coelho, who has been signed from Trabzonspor in Turkey, and Luis Jimenez, the Chile international, on a four-year deal.

Youssef Mohamad, a former Lebanon captain, is the final piece in the jigsaw, signing from the German club FC Koln as the club's Asian player.

The home fans got their first glimpse of Ahli's new squad on Monday night when they defeated Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal 2-0 in a friendly, with Grafite heading in the opener on 15 minutes and Ahmed Khamis adding the second in the 59th minute.

Grafite, Coelho and Jimenez looked a formidable trio and, encouragingly, the victory was achieved without half a dozen of their first-team players who are on international duty.

"When you are preparing for the season, it is best if you have all the players with the team," Qassim said. "But we have six or seven players with the national team. Still, we managed to put up a good show against Al Hilal and we hope to keep performing at this level through the season."

The award of the captaincy completes a remarkable turnaround for the defender who spent most of last season at a police academy preparing for life after football. He said the return of Hasek has galvanised the Emirati players.

"We had two poor seasons after Hasek left us in 2009, but he was following the league and knew everything that was happening at the club, all the small and big things," Qassim said.

"When he came back, he just changed a few things ... not too much. Sometimes, the players need their coach to be a friend or a brother and that is how Hasek behaves with the players.

"He spoke to every player, took their opinion and suggestions. That gives a lot of confidence to the players and they are ready to do everything for him. So I am confident we will make a good season with Hasek."

Ahli will play another friendly match on Saturday against Lekhwiya, the Qatar champions. Hasek is hoping to integrate the players returning from international duty in that game.

"It is not ideal when you are missing so many players during preparations," Hasek said.

"But they should be there for Saturday's match. It will be a tougher test for us than Hilal because Lekhwiya are Qatari champions and they will be here with their best team. But even then, it will just be a friendly game and we cannot read much into it. We have to continue working hard and make sure we are fully ready for the first match of the season."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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