By any standards, last year was a disastrous one for United Arab Emirates giants Al Ain. Their humiliating fight to avoid relegation from the country’s top-flight UFL was matched by a continental calamity, as they failed to qualify for the group stage of the AFC Champions League.
Given such a dismal showing, followers of the game in the UAE have received something of a shock this season. The country’s most decorated club are now top of the league table with half their games to go, proving to the doubters that last year was just a blip. Al Ain are back in contention.
Now the halfway mark has been passed and with decisive final games looming large on the horizon, FIFA.com spoke to Al Ain’s Romanian coach Cosmin Olaroiu about the secret behind his side’s dramatic renaissance and his title dream.
At the start of last season, the club was in turmoil, a situation not helped by Abdul Hameed Al Mistake starting as head coach before Alexandre Gallo took over in December 2010. However, the contract with 44-year-old Brazilian supremo made little difference to the club’s poor form.
Indeed, Gallo's charges had to fight hard to avoid slipping below Al Ittihad Kalba in the table and earning a demotion to the country's second tier. Meanwhile in Asia, they were unable to progress to the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League, a tournament they won in 2003.
Nevertheless, the club’s board finally got it right when they appointed Cosmin Olaroiu, a veteran coach who had worked with a number of the region’s top sides: including Saudi’s Al Hilal and Qatari outfit Al-Sadd. His impact has been almost instantaneous, with Al Ain currently sitting pretty in first place in the table and well on their way to re-establishing themselves as one of UAE’s top dogs.
Asked about this dramatic turnaround, Olaroiu declined to draw comparisons with last term's travails. “I can only talk about this campaign, as I wasn’t here last season," he said. "It’s my belief that our success comes from hard work, intensive preparation and the club’s desire to retain its rightful place as No1, both domestically and on the continent.
"It’s a team effort, in other words, starting with the board, which laid out our priorities and goals before the start of the season and gave us every incentive to do well," he continued. "The club’s many supporters have also had a positive effect on the side’s performances, not to mention the part the training staff and coaches have played. Al Ain’s PR department have also made sure that we get a completely unbiased and unvarnished idea of everyone’s views. The city of Al Ain has got its spirit back and that in itself has helped the team improve more than we believed possible.”
Additionally, the 42-year-old manager is adamant that the side’s success has come as no surprise to him. “I was sure we could do it this season,” he insisted. “Particularly when I saw that everything was in place to create the perfect working environment. The first thing I noticed was how well run the club was. It left a great impression on me and I came away thinking that this was a sporting organization run to the highest professional standards.”
A long road
That said, Olaroiu’s appointment was not the only change. Al Ain also signed up a number of players to bolster their ranks, including fellow Romanian Mirel Radoi from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and Argentina’s Ignacio Scocco from Greek side AEK Athinai. The attack was also strengthened by two loans in the shape of Saudi international striker Yasser Al Qahtani from Al Hilal and Ghana hitman Asamoah Gyan from Sunderland.
The fact that this foreign quartet has bonded so firmly with their Emirati team-mates has played a huge part in Al Ain’s superb run of form. “For me, any player that can make a real contribution to the team is a star. He’s the surprise factor,” agreed Olaroia. “All the players are exceptional. Each one has a role that he's expected to perform. The slightest failure to do what’s asked of you can lead to bad results for the side.”
They may be in front at the moment, but with ten games to go before the end of the season, Al Ain must still be wary of closest pursuers Al Nasr and third-placed Al Jazira. What's more, Al Nasr are only side to beat Al Ain so far this season.
And despite his side’s stellar performances to date, Olaroiu is reluctant to describe what would be the club's tenth league title as inevitable. “The game of football has no respect for predictions: it only rewards performances on the pitch.
"From the start of this season our strategy has been clear: to treat each game as a final and walk out ready for anything and dying to win. One of Al Ain’s biggest advantages is that wherever we play we feel like we’re at home," he said as the conversation concluded. "That’s down to our amazing fans, who are a central part of the team’s successes.”
Whether or not Olaroiu takes Al Ain all the way to the title, he has certainly done enough to restore the club’s battered pride and lead them back into the upper echelons of UAE football.