Asamoah Gyan's Al Ain face new set of challenges in UAE
Following an uncertain season in 2010/11, when the threat of relegation loomed large, Al Ain stood at a crossroads.
The Garden City had not welcomed home a league-winning side since 2004, a time when the club could claim categorically to be the best in Asia, too. Back then a ninth UAE title continued a remarkably prolific period, the fifth league crown gleaned from seven significantly successful seasons.
Then came the drought. Three President’s Cup trophies barely sated the appetite of the most vociferous supporters in the country as their side’s title count failed to climb into double digits.
The club needed reinvigoration.
A new board, headed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, sought revolution.
Cosmin Olaroiu, the sturdy Romanian with an emergent yet convincing CV, was appointed as the coach, and the squad burnished with accomplished foreign players in Asamoah Gyan, Yasser Al Qahtani and Mirel Radoi.
Confidence was quickly restored.
Nine victories from their opening 11 games last season suggested title No 10 was imminent, and April’s 2-0 win against Al Jazira, then champions, confirmed it with three matches to spare.
Al Ain were back in the limelight.
Now they must prove they are capable of staying there.
Summer recruitment has not gone entirely according to plan.
Gyan, the league’s most prolific marksman last season, may have made his loan move permanent from the English Premier League side Sunderland, but Al Qahtani, the Saudi Arabia striker who chipped in with some vital goals, and Ignacio Scocco, the influential Argentine, have returned to their native leagues.
Proficient replacements have proved difficult to find. Lyon’s Michel Bastos was pursued with intent throughout the transfer window, yet Al Ain would not match the €10 million (Dh48m) asking price demanded by the French club.
Park Chu-young, the South Korean in England with Arsenal, decided against a move to Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, preferring to remain in Europe.
Instead, Jires Kembo-Ekoto joined from Ligue 1 side Rennes. He made an impressive debut in the Super Cup victory on Monday, but replacing Al Qahtani will be no easy task.
An Asian player, to complete their foreign contingent, has yet to join, although the club claim a deal is imminent.
However, such dawdling, especially when the majority of their rivals have long finished trading, has fostered a certain anxiety.
Carlo Nohra, Al Ain’s chief executive, said the club’s transfer activity “has not gone the way we would have liked”.
He said: “I have no idea why, but all the things are handled quite delicately and carefully by the chairman and a few members of the board.”
Even Olaroiu, appearing somewhat downbeat on the eve of the Super Cup, conceded “we are not strong like last year” before revealing he had seen Omar Abdulrahman, the playmaker who carries much of this season’s expectations, only “twice in four months”.
Senior voices within the club appeared relaxed, however.
The addition of Mohammed Ahmed and Yaqoub Al Hosani, both UAE national team defenders, has given credence to the belief Al Ain will boast an even stingier defence; they conceded a league-low 16 goals last season.
And the potential for having a fit Abdulrahman for the whole of the campaign is a cause for optimism, too.
“Omar’s back and looking healthy,” said Liam Weeks, the head of performance analysis at the club. “He missed most of last season through injury, and to have him ready for the start of the campaign and available for the entire season is almost like having an extra foreign player.
“In my opinion, Omar is by far the best player in the country.”
Abdulrahman’s participation will need to be carefully managed and the squad has been augmented, maybe with that in mind, with the promotion to the first team of the youngsters Fares Jumaa, Fawzi Fayez, Salem Abdullah, Musallam Fayez and Abdulla Sultan Salam.