LONDON: Al-Ain have been told they have to turn up with their A-game against River Plate tomorrow or they can forget about a dream final against Real Madrid in the FIFA Club World Cup.
That is the message from the side’s coach Zoran Mamic, who saw “The Boss” beat Esperance Sportive de Tunis 3-0 on Saturday to book their semifinal spot against the Argentine giants.
Goals from Mohamed Ahmed, Hussein El-Shahat and Bandar Mohammed gave the hosts an emphatic victory over the African champions at their Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
But Mamic is only too aware that beating the champions of Tunisia is one thing, taking on the Copa Libertadores winners is of another proportion entirely.
“River one of the biggest teams in the world, with a great history and we are playing against them in the semifinal of the FIFA Club World Cup, but we have to enjoy it, we have to be proud and we have to make it difficult for River,” the Croatian said.
“We watched the games against Boca and they are very very strong, we just have to be better to survive this game.”
In Al-Ain’s favor, bar playing at home, is the fact that Mamic has a good knowledge of River and Argentine football, and he, like many football fans around the world, was a keen spectator of the Copa Libertadores final when the Buenos Aires side beat their arch-rivals Boca Juniors.
“It’s a great story for me, before I became a coach I worked as a sporting director for Dynamo Zagreb and I would travel to watch players. My first time in Argentina, first match was Boca vs. River, that was maybe 10-12 years ago,” Mamic revealed.
However, anyone thinking Al-Ain will be overawed by their opponents and the occasion had better think again.
“(River’s Marcelo Gallardo) is a great coach, they have done very well and he obviously knows how to talk to his players, but they have to respect us, we have shown we can play good football. I’m sure it will be an interesting game and I hope the stadium will be full,” Mamic said. “I also hope some Argentinian fans come because they create a good atmosphere. River had a great season, they won the Copa, the coach from River Plate cannot be bad.”
Al-Ain very nearly did not make it to the quarterfinals against Esperance, let alone the last-four clash against River. 3-0 down in their opening match against Team Wellington, a side made up of amateur players, the hosts looked like they were heading for an embarrassing early exit. A remarkable comeback, however, that saw Marcus Berg equalize with just five minutes left, was completed with a 4-3 win on penalties.
“The Wellington game was a difficult one, I didn’t want there to be pressure in that match, I wanted them to enjoy it but there was pressure because everyone was saying Wellington wasn’t a strong team and we should win easily and I think we felt that pressure. Wellington started, scored perfect goals and we were shocked,” Mamic said. “Thankfully we found a way to turn things round.”
Swedish international Berg will be a key man for Al-Ain tomorrow despite suffering with a virus over the past few days. Mamic is hopeful he will be back to 100 percent and able to start against River.
“For these past four days he has been really struggling with fever and today is the first day he has been feeling better, hopefully in the next three days he will recover to start the River game,” Mamic said.
There is little doubt “The Boss” will need Berg to be fit and at his best if they are to pull off a shock and beat the South American champions. Also key could be the Al-Ain fans packed into the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium. Mamic hopes they can act as a 12th player.
“I wanted to thank our fans for their great support and making a great ambience in the stadium, it’s a pleasure to play under these conditions, a pleasure for the players, a pleasure for the coaching staff and I’m sure it will be a good game,” Mamic said.
“Against River we most be focused, motivated which won’t be a problem, River are favorites but favorites don’t always win.”