With the 2019 Asian Cup right around the corner, the United Arab Emirates is hosting the Club World Cup in a final rehearsal for the biggest Middle Eastern football event in recent years.
The Club World Cup is a competition involving the champions of each continental association - UEFA, CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF, OFC and CONCACAF. The champions of the host country participate as well. Therefore, Al-Ain, champions of the Emirati Arabian Gulf League, is playing in this year's competition, alongside global mega-clubs such as Real Madrid and River Plate.
As the clubs from Europe and South America only join the competition in the semi-final stage, the early rounds saw the hosts advance with courage and style against all odds. Al-Ain played at the tournament's first game on Wednesday - a playoff match against Team Wellington, the New Zealander champions of Oceania. But what was supposed to be a walk in the park for Zoran Mamič and A-Za'im ["The Boss"] became a nightmare. Team Wellington scored the first after just 10 minutes, before adding another two ahead of the half-time whistle. At 3-0 to the Oceanians, the local fans were in tears. But it's not for nothing that Al-Ain is nicknamed "The Boss".
Goals from Japanese Tsukasa Shiotani, French Tongo Doumbia and Swede substitute striker, Marcus Berg - in the 85th minute - equalised the result and sent the game into extra time. Almost 16,000 fans watched on as the scoreline stayed the same for the extra 30 minutes. Time for penalties. Al-Ain kept their composure to win 4-3, completed their comeback, and continued to the next round.
On Saturday, Al-Ain provided another sensational night in the quarter-finals. Esperance Tunis, the champions of Africa were waiting, in what many assumed would be Al-Ain's final game in the competition. But after two minutes, Al-Ain were already 1-0 ahead as Mohamed Ahmad headed in a corner.
Within 15 minutes it was 2-0 for the Emiratis. Esperance had been standing well and attacked in an organised form, but Al-Ain went for deadly counter-attacks and got the second goal. El-Shahat took all of the Tunisian defenders on a walk on the edge of the box and netted in. Bandar Mohamed made it three with a second-half strike, and Al-Ain clinched a spot in the semi-finals against the gigantic Argentine River Plate, who only last week won the controversial Copa Libertadores final in Madrid.
Al-Ain is in the middle of an exciting season, the first in years without talisman Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman, who left on loan to Saudi Al-Hilal. So far, it seems that El-Shahat, who is a prolific finisher, Caio the Brazilian, a tremendous dribbler & sprinter, and Marcus Berg, a natural scorer, are still capable of producing magic moments for the Purple club. Goalkeeper Khalid Eisa is also in shape, as seen in the playoff round with spectacular penalty shoot-outs display.
Al-Ain are one of the 3 major powerhouses of Emirati football, next to Al-Jazira and Shabab Al-Ahly. Throughout the years, they won 13 titles, 7 cups and one Asian Champions League trophy, back in 2003. The Champions League has turned into some real obsession for the club, and in 2016 they almost won it, but lost to South Korean side, Jeonbuk.
Whether Al-Ain continues to shock the world with another victory or will succumb to defeat against River Plate, who’s a much stronger team, the Purple club have made a name for themselves and represented Emirati teams in a similar way that Al-Jazira did last year against Real Madrid.