‘Wahda, Al Ain frontrunners’

‘Wahda, Al Ain frontrunners’

Josef Hickersberger has tipped Al Ain as one of the “hot favourites” among a cluster of highly-ambitious clubs to claim the UAE League title this season.

Al Ain endured a miserable 2010/2011 campaign as they toiled in the lower reaches of the standings and narrowly avoided the dreaded drop, finishing five points above the relegated Ittihad Kalba and 28 adrift of winners Al Jazira.

However, as nine-time champions, the Abu Dhabi-based outfit’s pedigree in the competition cannot be questioned and Hickersberger believes their summer recruitment drive shall soon see them back challenging for the top spot once more.

“They are one of my hot favourites for the league title,” the Al Wahda boss, 63, said after his side’s 2-1 victory over their arch rivals in Group A of the Etisalat Cup at Rashid Stadium on Friday evening.

“We have won a match against a team that has invested a lot of money to do better than last season, which was one of the worst for Al Ain.

“They have done a lot to improve the squad; they have brought in (Ignacio) Scocco from AEK Athens and (Yasser) Al Qahtani from Saudi Arabia – a national team player and a very good goalscorer as well.

“They will also be playing a national team player from Ghana, who they have already signed, in (Asamoah) Gyan.

“They have much more quality in their squad. Last season, they didn’t have three foreign players, so they did a good job during the break and they will be much better.”

Brazilian ace Hugo put Al Wahda ahead with a cool 21st-minute penalty before applying a well-taken finish to Khalid Jalal’s searching ball five minutes after the restart to double their advantage.

Ismail Ahmed’s bullet header from Mirel Radoi’s corner then halved the deficit for Al Ain with 14 minutes left on the clock to set up a frantic and nervy finale, but Al Wahda held on stoically for the three points. The second half though was interspersed by frequent stoppages as both sets of players went down at various stages needing treatment for cramp in humid conditions.

“From what I have seen, many players are not fit enough to start the league,” Hickersberger admitted.

“This is not only because of the weather as we are using these matches in the Etisalat Cup to prepare some players who are coming back from injuries, like Ismail Matar, Saeed Basheer and Saeed Al Kathiri.

“We have to bring back Fernando Baiano, who was injured, so this is the task now for the next few weeks until the start of the league.

“We have to get the players fit. Their fitness is not of a high enough level and the injured players, or the players who didn’t train with the team for a long period, have to play matches whether they are ready or not.”

Al Wahda are nonetheless progressing well with this positive result following on from their Super Cup triumph over Al Jazira.

“How can I not be happy?” the club’s Austrian head coach added. “I have to praise my players for their willpower and what they have done, despite their obvious lack of fitness.

“They played with big hearts because it was Al Ain and Al Jazira they had to play against.

“This is a matter of character and will and that’s what they have shown.”


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