Kuala Lumpur: Al Ain return to the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League for the seventh time since the tournament’s launch in 2002, with the inaugural winners attempting to claim a second title 14 years after picking up their first crown.
The club’s relationship with the competition has been a successful one laced with frustration and disappointment as the team from the United Arab Emirates have twice gone close to claiming a second title.
Al Ain’s first – and so far only – win in the AFC Champions League came at the end of a campaign that saw them eliminate Al Hilal and Dalian Shide before winning 2-1 on aggregate over two legs against Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana in thrilling fashion.
That success was Al Ain’s first at continental level and occurred four years after their previous best performance in an Asian club competition, when they reached the semi-finals of the Asian Club Championship in 1999.
Then the Emiratis lost in the semi-finals to Iranian side Esteghlal before slipping up against Dalian Wanda of China in the third place play-off in Tehran’s imposing Azadi Stadium.
The memories of that disappointment, however, were erased in 2003 while two years later the club were within 90 minutes of claiming a second title, only to lose out to defending champions Al Ittihad as the Saudi Arabian side claimed a second successive continental crown.
A quarter-final exit followed in 2006 before elimination in the group phase and failure to qualify for the competition in 2007 and 2008 respectively saw Al Ain’s frustrations grow.
Indeed, the club from the Garden City made intermittent appearances in the competition as their fortunes at home suffered, but since 2013 Al Ain have reestablished themselves as regulars in the competition.
In 2014 they reached the semi-finals, having gained revenge over Al Ittihad with a 5-1 aggregate win over the two-time champions only to slip up against Al Hilal in the last four.
A year later there was further frustration when they were eliminated by local rivals Al Ahli – who would go on to reach the final – as the club from Dubai advanced on the away goals rule following a 3-3 draw over two legs.
Last season, however, Al Ain finally secured their spot in their first AFC Champions League final in over a decade when they saw off Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv in the quarter-finals before defeating Qatar’s El Jaish in the last four to set up a final meeting with former champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors from Korea Republic.
With a talented team featuring the likes of Omar Abdulrahman and Ismail Ahmed, Al Ain went into the game confident of success, but a narrow 2-1 loss in Korea Republic in the first leg was followed by a 1-1 draw in front of their own fans that ensured the trophy remained in East Asia.
Defeat was a chastening experience for the club, with coach Zlatko Dalic removed as Al Ain faltered in the domestic league, although under new coach Zoran Mamic they secured qualification for another run at the AFC Champions League title in 2017.
Spurred on by the talents of Abdulrahman, Al Ain negotiated a tricky group that featured Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s ZobAhan and Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan to advance to the last 16 of the competition once again.
Progress, though, only came after a slow start that saw Al Ain draw three of their first four games as they twice shared the points with Al Ahli as well as drawing with Zobahan in their opening game.
So tight was the group, Al Ain went into their Matchday Five meeting with Zobahan in danger of being eliminated, but a 3-0 win in Iran followed by victory over Bunyodkor in the final round of games not only saw the Emirati side qualify for the last 16 but also win the group.