UAE giants Al Ain will be counting on their Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan to steer them to history in the Asian Champions League in Mecca tonight.
It has been a season of many firsts for Al Ain. It was the first time since 2006 that Al Ain found themselves in the last eight of the AFC Champions League.
It was the first time in five attempts that Al Ain were on the right side of the result against Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad.
And on Tuesday night in Mecca, it could be another first if Al Ain do get the job done. ‘The Boss,’ who bossed over Al Ittihad at the iconic Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Tuesday night, have never won on their previous seven visits to Saudi Arabia.
The Garden City club have not advanced beyond the quarter-finals since they met Al Ittihad in the final nine years ago. Clearly, their trips to Saudi Arabia have been nothing to write home about.
But they get another crack at it and in different circumstances when they lock horns with Al Ittihad in a crucial second leg of the last eight of the premier Asian club competition at the King Abdulaziz Sport City in the Holy City of Mecca.
Al Ain carry a comfortable two-goal cushion heading into the return fixture, which has been moved from Jeddah to Makkah. Ismail Ahmed and Asamoah Gyan gave Al Ain a 2-0 win in the first leg.
And if ‘The Boss’ can recreate a similar showing or avoid defeat by two goals or more, the record UAE League champions would not only have avenged their 2005 final loss to Al Ittihad but also secure a spot in the last four.
But there are obstacles along the way, not least the change of venue. Al Ittihad requested the AFC to move the fixture from Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sport City to King Abdulaziz Sport City in Makkah citing that the newly-opened facility was not ready. That has meant in change of travel plans for Al Ain.
But that should matter little for a team like Al Ain, who are eager to put this fixture to bed. The game will anyway be played behind closed doors and without Saudi fans after AFC sanctions on unruly crowd behaviour.
But Al Ain will be up against an Al Ittihad team who have a strong home record in the Asian competition, winning the last 10 games.
This is only the third occasion that Al Ittihad find themselves looking to overturn a first leg deficit in the knockout stage of the competition.
Ten years ago, Al Ittihad bounced back after losing 3-1 at home against Seongnam Chunma to win 6-3 on aggregate in the final.
If Al Ittihad can repeat that feat, they will reach the semifinals for the fourth time in six seasons.
Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic had told his squad to not get carried away with the first leg win and urged them to conjure a similar performance in the second dig.
“We achieved a positive result but it is not the end of the encounter,” Dalic said.
“The second leg will be very hard and we should forget the good result that we achieved last Tuesday because we have another task ahead of us,” he added.
Al Ittihad coach Khalid Al Koroni will be hoping that his squad responds to that first leg loss in fitting fashion so that they can make their sixth semifinal appearance.
“We tried our best to level the score in Al Ain in the first leg meeting but we were not lucky,” said Al Koroni.
“In the first half, we showed that we know Al Ain very well but when we went into the attack, we left our back exposed and they managed to score. However, I hope that in the second leg we can make a good comeback,” said Al Koroni.