Emirati side Al-Ain will embark on their first ever appearance in the FIFA Club World Cup tonight as they face New Zealand based Team Wellington who were crowned champions of OFC.
And because the titles have always been lifted by a non-Asian squad and would be challenging to achieve, Al-Ain will be playing the role of the underdogs as they try to put in a good performance this week.
UAE playing hosts to the tournament on a cherished fourth occasion provides Al-Ain with a great incentive to usurp the routines of their predecessors. Moreover, all of the Emirati clubs which participated in the past editions (Al-Ahli, Al-Jazira and Al-Wahda) were only able to secure their spot merely due to their position as tournament hosts with Al-Jazira being the only club to have ended on a high (fourth position) in 2017.
While the squad has been in a very good form which carried over from the previous season, there is a lot of concern about how this team or any Emirati team could function against formidable foes like River Plate or Real Madrid.
Conceding the least amount of goals in the nation’s domestic league, the squad will be looking to GK Khalid Eissa to be a wall and demonstre a sense of leadership in the back – similar to what Al-Jazira’s Ali Khaseif was able to achieve based on the heroics displayed in goal during the last edition.
The concern, however, is focused on the back with an aging defense line of Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem who have been able to stop attacks day-in and day-out in the Arabian Gulf League match-ups have had a hard time defending against opponents away from the league. Any long balls played could pose a threat that their potential opponents could capitalize on. Yet, ironically, their weakness could also be converted into their greatest strength, as the two are physically built to cope with those long balls and perhaps even provide value in the attacking end from a set-pieces or open plays.
Marcus Berg will be leading the attack and rightfully so. The Swede has netted 10 goals in 11 games and could be formidable in front of goal. He will be supported by Egyptian Hussein El-Shahat and Brazilian Ciao who with a combination of speed and technical prowess can unlock a defense on any given day.
On what to expect tonight:
“Al Ain has a very good coach (Zoran Mamić) who can reads the match very well but my biggest fears are the defenders. If they are in good shape, Al Ain will win tonight and of course has to be along with the help of fans in and across the UAE,” says Mohammed Ahmed who tracks all things sports across the UAE via his twitter account @action_news.
On paper, it is clear that Al-Ain has the quality and depth to get past Team Wellington and if they do, they will most likely be facing CAF champions Tunisia’s Espérance Sportive de Tunis which may be an equal match at the technical level with the game coming down to who may be have the best drive to come up on the top.
No Arab teams from Asia have ever reached the final. While the ask may be difficult and perhaps unachievable, the hopes of many within the nation and across the region would be that Al-Ain, at the least, raise the profile of UAE in an event of such stature.