Asian Football Team Ranking
The latest Asian Football Confederation club competitions ranking offered the UAE significant satisfaction.
Released last week, the Emirates topped the standings – one ahead of South Korea, then Qatar, then Saudi Arabia and Japan. Australia were sixth, Iran eighth. A slight change in criteria had benefitted the UAE, given the newest calculations, which back to 2014, are weighted 90 per cent for performance in the Asian Champions League, with the other 10 per cent dictated by the national team’s success. The ratio used to be 70-30.
Clearly, the recent boom in Asia’s premier club competition has been the driving force behind the UAE’s place at the summit: Al Ain semi-finalists in 2014. Al Ahli runners-up in 2015. Al Ain runners-up again last year. It reflects a high point for UAE clubs in the Champions League.
Not since the early years of the tournament’s rebrand, when in 2003 Al Ain became the first – and thus far remain the only – Emirati club to win the competition, has the expectation of a repeat been so great.
■ Lowdown: Opponents of Al Ahli, Al Ain, Al Jazira and Al Wahda
■ Al Jazira v Lekhwiya: Ten Cate leaves tired Leonardo out Monday game
■ Al Ahli v Esteghlal: Olaroiu rallies side ahead of Iranian club’s visit
Yet, as group stages get under way on Monday, in reality the success of UAE sides this year is much more difficult to gauge. After consecutive finals, another showpiece appearance, or another chance to emulate Al Ain 2003, appears unlikely. At least, for the moment.
Take the country’s four representatives: Al Ain, Ahli, Al Jazira and Al Wahda. Al Ain remain one of the region’s best sides, loaded with UAE internationals and, in Omar Abdulrahman, possess the reigning Asian player of the year. However, the absence of a potent striker ultimately cost them last year, and they have since replaced Douglas with a fading Nasser Al Shamrani. Winger Danilo Asprilla also remains wildly inconsistent, although Al Ain should still advance from their group.
Rivals Ahli are similarly well stocked in UAE internationals, but they go into this campaign with only three registered foreigners. Playmaker Everton Ribeiro is the standout, yet Asamoah Gyan’s form and fitness is a concern, and Makhete Diop, a dependable goalscorer domestically, is untried in the Champions League. They will view Group A as manageable, but at present are some way short of going deep into the tournament.
There are question marks, too, regarding Jazira’s focus. The Abu Dhabi club lead the Arabian Gulf League by nine points with seven rounds remaining, so understandably have prioritised a first domestic top-flight title in six years. After all, it offers an easier route into the Fifa Club World Cup, to take place in the capital later this year. As such, Jazira have omitted Leonardo, the 2016 Champions League winner with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, from their continental squad. Nevertheless, they must attempt to improve upon their previous best – the last 16.
Neighbours Wahda, meanwhile, have not fared that well in Asia, either. In six attempts, they have failed to advance from their group and, after qualifying via the play-offs, reside in Group D alongside Al Hilal and Persepolis, leaders domestically in Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively.
All in all, the Emirati clubs, hamstrung somewhat by a recent reduction in investment, have a tough road ahead. Navigate the groups, though, and the summer can present renewed optimism and substantial reinvestment once more. It is just that, for now, a continuation of this Champions League upsurge seems a notably uphill task.