Al Ain look to add the President's Cup to the Arabian Gulf League, while Al Wasl want to end an eight-year trophy drought
The UAE’s most-decorated club appear set for another glorious end to the season.
They ended a near three-year wait for silverware last month with a dominant, record-extending 13th Arabian Gulf League crown – wrapped up with a game to spare. Thursday’s prestigious clash at Zayed Sports City against the Cheetahs – who are determined to end an eight-year trophy drought – is the next challenge, prior to an intense two-legged tie versus QNB Stars League champions Al Duhail to make the 2018 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals on May 8 and 15.
“We are aiming to achieve all our goals in this season,” said 34-year-old UAE centre-back Ahmed. “After we finished the league, all our focus now is on making our fans happy in the most-prestigious tournaments [President’s Cup and AFC Champions League].
“The sense of responsibility in challenging for the title is a weapon for all the players against Al Wasl.
“Our motivation and confidence is high to win the President’s Cup, especially as this coincides with the Golden Jubilee of Al Ain and the Year of Zayed.”
In contrast, Wasl’s last trophy was the 2009/10 GCC Champions League. Prior to this, defeat to Al Ain in the 2006 President’s Cup decider was followed by a league and cup double a year later.
Fortunes and hopes have increased exponentially since June 2016’s arrival of coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Their second-placed finish in the 2016/17 top flight gained qualification to the ACL for the first time in a decade.
They embarrassingly lost all six Group C matches in that competition. But they went close with a 2-1 defeat to Al Wahda in the 2017/18 Arabian Gulf Cup showpiece, while they held onto third in the AGL.
This followed a drastic downturn in form. They were unbeaten leaders in the first half of the top flight, but lost five of their last 11 fixtures.
Arruabarrena, 42, paid homage to a squad possessed of “great enthusiasm and passion”, who confound incorrect tropes given to him before walking out at Zabeel Stadium.
He said: “The upcoming match against Al Ain in the final of the President’s Cup will be a very important match for the team, especially as the team is hungry to win titles and make historic achievements.
“I was told when I joined that I would find disgruntled players who did not follow the training schedule. But I found men, with great ability and who take responsibility.
“They also have great enthusiasm and passion to lead the team to the place that fits them, so I think that the players deserve to be in the final against Al Ain.”
The Cheetahs will have to do without suspended midfielder Abdullah Al Naqbi, who struck the only goal in Sunday’s 1-0 league win at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. Ex-Al Ain full-back Hazza Salem is injured.
For their opponents, UAE forward Ahmed Khalil is likely to drop out of the XI so Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat and 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman can wreak havoc.
Sweden No9 Marcus Berg’s quartet in the preceding 5-0 thrashing of Al Dhafra saw him top the AGL scoring charts with 25 goals.
“No matter how many finals I have won, even though I am the most prolific coach in Croatia, I am eager to gain more achievements with Al Ain and I hope we can win the trophy,” said coach Zoran Mamic.
In two AGL meetings this season, the sides played out an opening-day 2-2 draw in Al Ain and a 3-1 win for the visitors to Dubai.