Having served an ominous warning last time out, inaugural champions Al Ain will be eager to maintain that benchmark when they do battle against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in the first leg of the AFC Champions League semifinal at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night.
Coach Zlatko Dalic goes up against his old club and it is sure to bring back some fond memories. The Croatian had guided them to the last 16 of the competition last year. But this time, he is on the other side of the fence. And the stakes are high.
Dalic termed it “special,” on taking his old club but nostalgia will be put aside. Up for grabs is a berth in the final of Asia’s premier club competition and these two are among the last four who are left standing.
The last time they were in the final was in 2005, but ended up on the wrong side of the result against Al Ittihad. But ‘The Boss’ took revenge by walloping Al Ittihad for a 5-1aggregate victory.
The Garden City club haven’t played a game yet on the domestic front but have been in crackling form on the Asian stage, especially on the road. They are unbeaten in their last four away games, a 2-1 win against compatriots Al Jazira in the Round of 16, as well as a win over Qatar’s Lekhwiya and a draw against Iran’s Tractorsazi Tabriz, in the group stages.
Al Ain have plundered 23 goals in 10 games as they topped their qualifying group and won all four knock-out matches.
Another win here would set them up on their way to a title tilt against either Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers or South Korea’s Seoul FC, in October.
Al Ain will have a slight advantage with the intel provided by Dalic, on Al Hilal.
“Al Hilal is a big club, the best club in Asia in the 20th century, and for me this is a special match. I’m playing against my former club, against players that I used to coach, so there are no big secrets,” Dalic said ahead of the game.
And he hinted that it would be a matter of who blinks first. “I know Al Hilal and their players very well, and also they know my style and my work. I respect Al Hilal as a team, but also I respect my players and my current club Al Ain, and I believe that we will move forward to the final,” said the 47-year-old.
The Croatian, who took over from Spaniard Quique Sanchez Flores and lent some respect to a pretty average domestic campaign with five wins from their last seven league matches and the President’s Cup final, felt that it will be an intense affair.
“For us, the game against Al Hilal will be more intense, after all it is a semifinal. There are four teams left in competition, who are the best teams in Asia, so it will be a tough two games,” added Dalic, who joined Al Ain one game into the current AFC Champions League campaign.
Al Hilal are already four games into their domestic campaign and are unbeaten. Al Ain, though, are yet to play a game. But Dalic said that was no excuse.
“It is a bad situation for us since we have played only two competitive games in this season, but we must be ready since there are no excuses. We won our last three away games in the AFC Champions League, but we are aware that we will be facing 70,000 loud fans, but we are ready for it. I will tell my players that they must concentrate only on field. I believe in my team and I will try to push them forward and I’m very optimistic about this game,” he said.
The regulars Omar Abdulrahman, Asamoah Gyan were on song along with comeback man Jires Kembo Ekoko as well as new recruits Miroslav Stoch and Lee Myung-Joo against Al Ittihad. The defence too had stacked up well. Dalic termed it a massive result but asked for more.
“It is a big result for our club and for me personally. To be placed amongst the four best teams in Asia is a superb achievement. But we want more, and I’m confident that we can make an even better result,” said Dalic.
Gyan has led the way with a tournament-topping 12 goals.
The return leg will be played at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain on September 30.
Meanwhile, Seoul FC welcome Western Sydney Wanderers, who eliminated defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the quarterfinals, at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on Wednesday ahead of the return fixture two weeks later in Australia.
KICK-OFF: 9.30 p.m UAE time
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