UAE superclub Al-Ain shock at football's Club World Cup
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 East 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 Tsukasa Shiotani, Tongo Doumbia and 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 goal-line stayed the same for the extra 30 minutes. Time for penalties. Al-Ain kept their composure to win 4-3, complete their comeback, and continue to the next round.
On Saturday, Al-Ain provided another sensational night in the quart-finals. Esperance Tunis, the champions of Africa was waiting, in what many assumed would be Al-Ain's final game in the competition.
But after two minutes, Al-Ain was 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-final against the gigantic Argentines of River Plate, who only last week won the controversial Copa Libertadores final in Madrid.
Al-Ain is in the middle of an exciting season, and the first in years without talsiman Omar "Amoory" Abdulrahman. It seems that El-Shahat, Caio and Marcus Berg are still capable of creating magic, and goalkeeper Khalid Eisa is still in shape for penalties and game-saving efforts.
Weather Al-Ain continue to shock the world with another victory or will succumb to defeat against River Plate, 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.
Umbro v Puma in Cairo
During the past week, Umbro announced a new deal with Al-Ahly Cairo. Al-Ahly is regarded as the best and most popular club in Africa and the Middle East, and its sponsorship by the English kit manufacturer is a statement of intent towards deepening their presence in the developing markets of Africa and the Arab world, after signing deals with Ghanaian Hearts of Oak and Tunisia's Esperance Taraji de Tunis.
From January 1, 2019, Umbro will start a 3-and-a-half year deal with Al-Ahly, the Egyptian champions.
The deal comes in response to the lucrative deal signed by Al-Ahly's city rivals, Zamalek, with Puma. It's a good sign that, after a few years of self-production or second-tier companies running the market in Egypt, strong brands such as Puma and Umbro are now not hesitating to invest in African and Arab football.
Bilic and Ittihad's first
After a run of 15 games, stretching back to the end of last season and more than six months, Ittihad Jeddah has finally won a game of football. After 13 match days, Ittihad is struggling up from the last spot on the table, thanks to goals from Al Ghamdi, Romarinho and Fahd Al-Muwallad, which gave the team a 3-1 away victory against Al-Batin.
After nine games in charge, Croatian coach Slaven Bilic has finally made his mark on the team, now looking solid and more combative than ever. Ittihad's journey to escape relegation continues, but now with a positive injection of energy thanks to the club's first victory this season.