The time is now for Al Ain to reward coach Zlatko Dalic
It has become a refrain since Zlatko Dalic was installed as Al Ain manager.
“I believe in my team,” the Croat says. “I trust in my players.”
Now, his team must believe in him. His players need to trust in their coach as he attempts to plot a great escape.
Most would consider it mission impossible: Al Ain have one foot through the Asian Champions League exit door, thrust towards it by their semi-final, first-leg humbling in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago. Al Hilal were determined and decisive, Al Ain disorientated and deficient. Three goals conceded in nine second-half minutes, the cracks appeared and their continental dream shattered.
Dalic has spent the past two weeks putting the pieces back together. A couple of Arabian Gulf League victories have gone some way to healing wounds, but complete restoration will be sealed only if Al Ain haul themselves from the precipice tonight.
It looks an unlikely venture. A 3-0 deficit is a wretched position from which to begin the climb. Concede at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, gifting Hilal a precious away goal, and Al Ain suddenly require five in response.
Their quest is not aided by the absence of Khalid Essa; the goalkeeper is unavailable after receiving a red card in Riyadh. Dalic has labelled it “a great handicap”.
Dawoud Sulaiman is the likely replacement.
It is not the only obstacle. For all Asamoah Gyan’s prowess in this season’s competition – the Al Ain striker is the tournament’s top scorer, with 12 goals – Hilal have not conceded in their past eight Asian matches. Their prowess at the back is married with a proficiency up front: in Nasser Al Shamrani, the Saudis possess the tournament’s second-highest scorer.
He managed a double against Al Ain at the King Fahd Stadium, when his goal tally reached nine.
So an implausible route to the final requires a guiding light. Dalic must provide answers to a conundrum.
Much of what he has achieved thus far offers hope, however faint. In seven months at Al Ain, Dalic took over a team low on confidence and lifted them to President’s Cup success and an extended run in Asia.
Under Dalic’s instruction, a side in stasis has been given fresh momentum, improved by signings Miroslav Stoch, Lee Myung-joo, Rashid Essa and Mohammed Fawzi. Al Ain have become quicker in thought and action, their attacking brawn underpinned by a high-intensity approach to unsettling rivals and stealing possession.
It is a philosophy honed at various clubs in his homeland and then, crucially, during his time coaching tonight’s opponents. Dalic spent a year at Hilal from May 2012, originally with the club’s second team before earning promotion to the senior side.
He knows the club, understands it, recognises its strengths and weaknesses. A game plan was initially well executed in Riyadh, but then rendered irrelevant within nine manic minutes around the hour.
As much as Dalic must find the answers tonight, Al Ain need to heed their manager’s advice.
Courage must be coupled with caution. Dalic has been a calming influence since his appointment in March, and that control should remain in place tonight.
Al Ain need to believe their coach can mastermind a mighty upset.
His trust in his players must be reciprocated.
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