They may be the away team, but Zoran Mamic is under no elusion that Al Hilal will be coming to Al Ain for all three points on Monday night.
Two of the biggest teams in West Asia clash at what is likely to be a raucous Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, as the AFC Champions League quarter-finals get underway.
It will be a prelude to the 2017/18 domestic season for the Boss, which kicks off with an Arabian Gulf Cup game against Hatta on September 4, with the Arabian Gulf League getting underway at home to Al Wasl on September 16.
The Crescent, meanwhile, are already two games into their Saudi Pro League campaign, and Ramon Diaz’s men sit top of the table following two wins.
They arrive in the Garden City without the services of playmakers Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, but Al Ain coach Mamic does not expect that to blunt their attacking threat.
“It is difficult to talk about the opposing team’s strategy because each coach has his own thoughts,” said the 45-year-old Croat.
“We realise that our task will not be easy and we will make sure to adopt an attacking approach to face Al Hilal, who I do not think will adopt a method of defense because they are the visiting side.”
Despite the two sides being at different stages of match fitness with Hilal two games into their season, Mamic warned the visitors that the ACL is a very different competition.
“I have told my team that this will be a new challenge and it will also be completely different from the Saudi league competition,” he said.
— Al Ain FC (@alainfcae) August 20, 2017
Mamic is likely to give a start to summer singing Marcus Berg. The Swedish striker has been hitting the back of the net with regularity during pre-season and the former Panathinaikos and Hamburg striker admits he’s settled to life well in the UAE.
“The truth is since I joined Al Ain the team has welcomed me impressively and I’ve been treated superbly by my teammates from the beginning, as well as by the coach and administrative staff,” said Berg, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Thursday.
The two sides meet in the competition for the first time since Al Ain were dumped out of the 2014 semi-finals. The damage was done in the first leg in Riyadh in which the Boss were blitzed 3-0 by a Nasser Al Shamrani-inspired Hilal.
Al Ain, who were defeated by South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in last year’s final, are looking to lift a trophy they last hoisted in 2003. Although they have never won in the current ACL era, Hilal are two-time former winners of the tournament in its previous Asian Club Championship guise – champions in 1991 and 2000.
Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz predictably singled out Al Ain maverick Omar Abdulrahman as the man his players will most fear tonight, but the Argentine has warned his men not to forget the Boss’ other talents in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final.
‘Amoory’ will be key to his team’s chances of progress in the competition – he has five goals in this year’s competition – the second most behind Persepolis’ Mehdi Taremi.
Abdulrahman is picking up from where he left off in 2016 – the 25-year-old collected a remarkable eight man-of-the-matches as he led Al Ain to the final – and Diaz says his side are wary of the frizzy-haired magician.
“Amoory is the superstar of Al Ain and has high skill, but I cannot devote all my concentration to him,” he said.
“On the contrary, my team will play putting all players under pressure.”
Diaz will be without two of his own key playmakers in Saudi Arabia international Nawaf Al Abed and Uruguay schemer Nicolas Milesi – the latter of who was taken off after 33 minutes of Hilal’s entertaining 4-3 Saudi Pro League win against Al Taawoun.
He added: “It is true we will miss Nawaf Al Abed and Nicolas Milesi, two good players, but we have the bench ready to prove their abilities on the pitch.”
Diaz led the Crescent to a record-extending 15th Saudi league crown last season and he wants more titles with Hilal, although he is just focusing on this first leg.
“I’m glad I succeeded in getting my league title with the club, my team is ready to bring more tournaments, but we must not get ahead of events,” he said.
“We have now 180 minutes to reach the semi-final, but Al Ain are a good team. All I can say is that our team is well prepared and everyone is focused.”
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