Thenational - Cosmin Olaroiu has urged his Al Ahli players to show the right focus to kick start their Asian Champions League campaign with a victory.
The UAE champions, runners-up in 2015, open their Group A account on Monday against an in-form Esteghlal at the Rashid Stadium. The Tehran club are third in the Iranian top flight and have won their past six matches, including this month’s play-off victory on penalties against Qatar’s Al Sadd.
Meanwhile, Ahli sit second in the Arabian Gulf League, although they trail leaders Al Jazira by nine points with seven rounds remaining and have endured a difficult season both on and off the pitch.
However, Olaroiu is confident his side can open their Asian account on a positive note, as they seek to qualify from the group for only the second time. Two years ago, Ahli left it until their final match to secure a place in the knockout stages, before they eventually went on to the final, where they lost 1-0 on aggregate to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
"We start a new competition for this season, with the opening game against a very strong team," Olaroiu said ahead of Ahli’s first Champions League encounter since that defeat in Guangzhou. "It’s a team who mix the experience of some players with some very talented young players. They are in very good condition, especially as they’ve won five or six matches in a row.
"So I hope our players do their best and show the right motivation and spirit. Because excitement, spirit and motivation are very important factors in matches like this. [In 2015] we had a target to qualify from the group stage. In all the situations we were in, the players did very well, sacrificed a lot. We always have the spirit to fight a lot."
Ahmed Khalil will once again be crucial to Ahli’s chances. The UAE striker scored six goals in the tournament two years ago, including two times in the final group game to guarantee his side’s progression. He was later named Asia’s player of the year – the first Emirati to win the award.
"As players, we are ready," Khalil said. "We should prepare ourselves very well because it’s different to the league. The first three points are very important, especially because we are at home, and we need to use that advantage.
"We need both experience, spirit and motivation to win. In games like this you need to be very careful, very focused. The players know how to deal with these matches. We hope to do the same as in 2015 and not just reach the final, but win the title."