Despite having recently celebrated his 36th birthday and enduring a torrid 2018/19 campaign, both individually and collectively, Ismail Ahmed admits he has “tremendous enthusiasm” to help Al Ain win more trophies.
The veteran UAE centre-back regressed badly last season as the years appeared to catch up with both him and his Boss centre-back partner Mohanad Salem. Individual errors became prevalent in their performances – particularly Ahmed, whose lowest ebb came when he suffered the ignominy of being sent off for elbowing an opponent in the UAE’s Asian Cup semi-final defeat in January.
At club level there was the high of reaching December’s FIFA Club World Cup final on home soil, where the Boss were beaten by Spanish giants Real Madrid 4-1 in the final in Abu Dhabi.
But the domestic campaign ended in failure as Al Ain slumped to a fourth-placed finish. They failed to emerge from the AFC Champions League group stage for the first time since 2013 and have to negotiate a play-off to qualify for next year’s tournament – fail and it would be the first time in eight years they won’t have qualified for the continental tournament.
But Ahmed – who has lifted two Arabian Gulf League titles, two President’s Cups, two UAE Super Cups and one Arabian Gulf Cup, not to mention been to one Champions League final and one semi-final in his 11 years with the club – is confident going forward.
“Let me thank the Al Ain fans for their continued support of me and strong support for the team in all circumstances,” said the man who turned 36 earlier this month.
“I am proud to be part of this Al Ain family, I have sincere love for this great club.
“I lived happy moments and contributed to the championships and numerous achievements and I have also lived as well with my team in difficult circumstances during the 11 years I spent at the club.
“None of these moments can fall out of my memory. I have a tremendous enthusiasm to contribute with my team to win more tournaments.”
The Morocco-born defender, who arrived in the Garden City in 2008, was curiously offered a lengthy new deal in September last year, extending his contract until 2024, although Ahmed revealed he has taking initial steps into coaching by obtaining his AFC coaches’ C licence.
He added: “I entered on the advice of close friends. I have great ambitions and am committed to the journey in the world of football even after my retirement as a player.”
Despite their escapades at the Club World Cup, 2018/19 was a disruptive season for Al Ain and AGL sides, with the league starting in the baking August heat in order to accommodate both that and the Asian Cup.
The Boss went into a tailspin after their Los Blancos meeting, winning just five of their ensuing 21 in all competitions. Former Villarreal and Real Betis manager Juan Carlos Garrido was unable to arrest a slide that began with talisman Omar Abdulrahman’s defection to Al Hilal last summer, with coach Zoran Mamic soon following suit. Al Ain’s season seemed doomed from the start.
“Certainly the success and the circumstances that accompanied the team and the lack of technical stability and injury factor was one of the reasons that made it difficult for us to appear at a good level locally and continental,” said Ahmed.
“But we defended the name of the club honorably in the Club World Cup. Criticism does not infuriate me at all because I see perspective so I am working to modify my status and improve my level, especially for the fans.
“Always the defensive line are responsible for mistakes, and there are those who are critical of us. But I wish to reconcile in the upcoming season and hope we can achieve the aspirations of the club and the happiness of the fans.”
Despite their woes last term, new boss Ivan Leko has got off to a bright start this summer with a number of eye-catching moves in the transfer market.
Algerian winger Abderrahmane Meziane and highly-rated Togo forward Kodjo Fo-Doh have joined Dh25-million rated forward Caio Canedo, impressively acquired from fellow AGL side Al Wasl. Domestically, talented midfielder Mohamed Jamal has been snapped up from Al Jazira while Mohammed Helal joins from Ajman.
The club are currently on a pre-season camp in Austria where Ahmed says he has been encouraged by the Boss’ bright start to the summer.
“Al Ain, in every season, seeks to provide strong levels of competition for all tournaments, whatever the circumstances experienced by the team the previous season.
“Today we are in an excellent position with the players signing new contracts and the deals concluded to strengthen the team. Certainly the team cannot stand on one player or two or even five alone.”
Laurentiu Reghecampf insists his players are feeling no pressure to perform as they go in search of a fourth win against high-flying Al Wasl that would maintain their 100 per cent start to the season.
The Clarets sit top of the Arabian Gulf League table with nine points from three games but face arguably their sternest test so far as they travel to Dubai to take on free-scoring Al Wasl – who have notched 14 goals in their first five games in all competitions.
The Cheetahs are unbeaten in that run but sit two points behind Wahda in second after an opening day 2-2 AGL draw at Al Ain.
Despite a positive start, Romanian Reghecampf was keen to point out the season has only just started.
“Nothing is happening at this stage of the season,” he said ahead of the Wasl game.
“We have a lot of games to come. If we want to be at the top we have to play every game very seriously.
“For us there is no pressure. If you want to do anything, for us it’s very simple, we have to play every game like it’s our last game, give everything, play nice football and I hope for a good result. But it’s not pressure. No-one on the team feels pressure.
“We’ve only played three games, we have a lot of games to play. I hope after this game we will be happy. Every game is difficult for us. If we beat Al Wasl we cannot say we are going to win the championship.”
Rodolfo Arruabarrena knows Cheetahs fans are hungry for a first league title in 11 years, and first in the professional era, and the Argentine hopes he can make their dreams come true this season.
“The Al Wasl fans always have great hope for the tournament, they love their team a lot and wish to return to the podium again,” said the former La Albiceleste international.
“I feel good and I hope that I will spend time with the players to achieve their aspirations and dreams this season.
‘We face a strong team in Al Wahda that ranks among the strongest in the league, and we enter the game to achieve victory and provide an outstanding performance that the fans who support us can enjoy.”
Elsewhere, Jose Peseiro is adamant Sharjah are better than their 10th position suggests as they head to struggling Hatta looking for a first win in five games in all competitions this season.
The King have just one point from three AGL games and are looking to halt a two-game losing run against opponents who made Macedonian Gjoko Hadzievski the league’s first managerial casualty last week after the Tornado lost all three opening games to sit rock bottom of the table.
“The results do not reflect the level of the team and we deserve to be in a better position than the current one we are in,” said Portuguese Peseiro whose side showed tremendous spirit to rescue a 3-3 draw in the Arabian Gulf Cup against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai on Saturday having been 2-0 down and seen goalkeeper Ahmed Dida sent off with the score goalless.
“We will change the shape of the team in the coming days for the better.
“The spirit was clear in the previous game and that’s what I always ask my players to show to the team, the club and the fans.”
Defender Ryan McGowan and midfielder Cesar Pinares are back after playing in World Cup qualifiers for Australia and Chile respectively, but their inclusion is not guaranteed.
Henk ten Cate, meanwhile, is happy his players have silenced their early-season critics following a morale-boosting 2-1 win over fierce foes Al Ain in the AG Cup last weekend.
The champions, who have lost their last two in the league, have looked a shadow of the side that stormed to the AGL title last season in the opening few weeks. But Ten Cate feels they have turned a corner.
“I think the team has proved that they can work hard like last year,” said the Dutchman, who takes his side to Al Dhafra tomorrow.
“I said previously the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The chain was really strong against Al Ain, we are one, united. We bounced back from the Al Nasr defeat against a good opponent.
“Al Ain are a very good team but we made it very difficult for them, not giving them space in the centre.
“I think we did very well to win because if you don’t people keep asking about what happened to Al Jazira, what’s happened to the players.
“And now everyone falls silent and we can concentrate on the next game, which is against Al Dhafra and again another difficult opponent. We will play with the same desire to win.”
Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s long search for a first signing since their shock summer merger is set to be ended outside the transfer window after ex-South Korea Under-23 playmaker Moon Chang-jin began training with them this week.
Moon, 24, has been practising under the watch of coach Cosmin Olaroiu since gaining his release from K League Classic-promoted side Gangwon FC in the wake of October 1’s 1-1 draw against Ulsan Hyundai. The Rio 2016 Olympics quarter-finalist is now poised to ink a deal until June 2018 thanks to Article 37 in the UAE Football Federation’s rulebook, which allows free agents to join within three weeks of the market shutting – October 2 was the closing date.
Prominent Emirati agent Nasser Kashwani was putting the final touches on the attacking midfielder’s registration on Wednesday. The new boy will fulfil the designated Asian-qualified spot in the four-player foreign quota, potentially beginning with Saturday’s hosting of Emirates Club in the Arabian Gulf League.
More than 30 players had previously exited without replacements being procured since May’s surprise amalgamation of Al Shabab, Al Ahli and promoted Dubai CSC.
The slight Moon has struck six times in 30 matches for Gangwon after a €250,000 (Dh954,942) move from Pohang Steelers in December 2016. He had scored 10 goals in 86 run-outs for his boyhood club, following a debut in June 2012.
Olaroiu has been without an Asian player at Ahli since Moon’s compatriot Kwon Kyung-won was sold to ambitious Chinese Super League-outfit Tianjin Quanjian for $11 million last January. In the wake of the merger, Uzbekistan veteran Azizbek Haydarov was released after six years with Shabab – he subsequently joined yo-yo club Ajman.
A €1m (Dh4.4m) offer was made for Jeonnam Dragons midfielder Kim Young-uk last month, but this transaction went incomplete.
Shabab Al Ahli’s current non-Emiratis are prolific Senegal centre forward Makhete Diop, compatriot and €17m (Dh70m) record buy Moussa Sow plus Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor.