x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Threat of the drop very real for Al Ain

The league's most decorated side have not won a Pro League game since September 3, a drought of 12 matches, and are at risk of relegation for the first time in club annals.

Al Ain are a club known for making history, but not of this sort. The league's most decorated side have not won a Pro League game since September 3, a drought of 12 matches, and are at risk of relegation for the first time in club annals.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the club's board of directors were changed last week, and the new panel quickly issued the usually dire "vote of confidence" in the Brazilian coach Alexandre Gallo, whose tenure with the club could hinge on a two-match Asian Champions League trip to the Far East next week.

Of more pressing concern is a home match tonight with the reinvigorated Al Wahda, a game offering the latest chance for the nine-time Pro League champions to escape the relegation zone - in which they seem to be putting down roots behind unfancied sides such as Dubai and Al Dhafra.

How did Al Ain get into this fix? Defections, injuries, miscalculations and bad luck certainly are at work, but so too is the clear lack of a competent goalscorer.

Gallo, who took over the club in December when the season was already going badly wrong, has changed Al Ain's style. Their focus on a hulking striker at the point of the attack, in the person of the Argentine Jose Sand, has been shifted to a more open, flowing game.

Sand has been exiled to the Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna, replaced by the more agile Brazilian Elias Ribeiro who, alas, has not shown Sand's knack for finishing in front of the net.

Gallo has cited and lamented his club's habit of holding the ball and controlling the pace of a match without quite getting around to scoring.

Clearly a patient and optimistic man, Gallo chooses to believe Al Ain's futility in attack is something like a supernatural event that will soon end if only Al Ain persevere.

"Something strange happened," he said after his side lost 2-1 away last week to Sharjah. "The players did exactly what I asked. They created. They had the game under control. And we lost the game.

"I will be worried if the team doesn't play well, but the team is playing well. We are doing our work.

"Something has to change. It will happen. It has to change."

The sight of Al Ain near the bottom of the table, on 11 points, is jarring to followers of UAE football. Al Ain are the country's only club to win the Asian Champions League (in 2003) or finish second (2005). The club also have five President's Cup trophies to go with those nine league championships.

Perhaps that explained the almost giddy celebration at Sharjah after their victory; the Al Ain name still strikes fear into opponents even if the current team do not.

Gallo said he has disabused his players of the idea that their fortunes will turn simply because they wear the Al Ain shirt.

"I believe that we will leave this trouble, and not just because of the name of Al Ain, but because of how we are playing," he said.

The club have two chances to recover their reputation in difficult Champions League matches in the next two weeks.

They travel to China to play Hangzhou Greentown on April 6, then hop over to Japan on April 12 to meet Nagoya Grampus in a match rescheduled from March 15 because of the earthquake and tsunami that hit that country. (Al Ain plan to be in and out of Japan as quickly as possible because of concerns over radiation leaks from damaged nuclear reactors.)

Surging into Champions League contention could blunt the sting of a lost league season, as would victory in the Etisalat Cup final in May.

Al Ain advanced to the final match of the country's No 3 competition by twice erasing a one-goal deficit and defeating Al Wasl 3-2 in by far their most impressive result this season.

But the main task remains avoiding the ignominy of relegation. Surely, Al Ain have to win another league game … but their devoted supporters have been saying that since September.