New Al Ain signing Marcus Berg has dubbed the club the Real Madrid or Barcelona of Asia, and has made it his mission to lead them back to Asian Champions League glory.
The 30-year-old Swedish striker joined on a two-year transfer from Greek side Panathinaikos for €3 million (Dh12.5 million) on Wednesday, ending weeks of negotiations. He scored 24 goals in 30 appearances for Panathinaikos last season, and 75 goals in 115 appearances over four years at the club.
“Al Ain is among the best in Asia,” he told Sweden’s Sportbladet upon signing. “To explain their place in football in this part of the world, I would compare them to Barca or Real Madrid.
“The team is not as good as those teams, of course, but Al Ain have the same status in the pecking order of Asia and it’s cool to be part of their investment.
“They have an economy that allows them to bring in very good players. It also means something that they want me. There will be a pressure on me to perform,” added the former Hamburg frontman, who has 12 goals in 47 appearances for Sweden since 2008. He played in all of Sweden’s games against Ireland, Italy and Belgium during his nation’s group stage exit at Euro 2016.
“The money eases things,” Berg said of his reasons for joining. “But it wasn’t decisive. Just as important was that sporting-wise, I’ve come to a club that in Asia can be compared to Barca or Real.
“Al Ain have been very interested and it is a really big club. Now that I’ve seen their stadium, training ground and met with those who work at the club, it feels very good. The only thing that can be a hassle is the heat.”
Al Ain are the record 12-time UAE league champions and the only Emirati side to have lifted the Asian Champions League back in 2003.
However, they haven’t won anything in two seasons and have struggled to replace Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan, who was sold to China’s Shanghai SIPG for a UAE record €20 million (Dh81 million) in 2015.
The Boss looked close to ending their dry run before losing last year’s Asian Champions League final 3-2 on aggregate to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Motors in what was their third ACL final appearance. But now Berg has pledged to get them back up there, while prolonging his international career in the process.
Asked what his goal was with the Garden City club, he replied: “To win the Asian Champions League again. The only chance to reach next year’s Champions League is to win this year’s tournament,” he said in reference to Al Ain failing to qualify to Asia next year after finishing fourth in last season’s Arabian Gulf League. They are still in this year’s Asian Champions League however, and play Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal in a two-legged quarter-final at home on August 21 and away on September 11.
“It’s a very tough quarter-final that awaits us against Al Hilal in August,” he added. “Then we will of course try to win the Arabian Gulf League next season too.
“For me personally, this move does not signify any difference in my ambition,” he said of his national team prospects. “I have big goals. Hopefully we can reach really far in qualifying for the World Cup, then comes the Euros after. I want to be involved and it’s up to me to show what I can do, and that I’m good enough to play for Sweden.
“I feel in great shape physically. I will focus on two years here and then we’ll see what happens. But right now I feel like I can play for many more years,” he said of his future.
Berg is Al Ain’s second foreign signing of the summer after Japanese defensive midfielder Tsukasa Shiotani, who joined from Sanfrecce Hiroshima earlier this month to replace South Korean midfielder Lee Myung-joo. Berg will replace Saudi striker Nasser Al Shamrani. The club will keep Brazilian midfielder Caio Lucas but are in the market for one more foreigner with Colombian winger Danilo Asprilla tipped to leave.
Berg will be the second Swede to play in the UAE recently since Christian Wilhelmsson spent a season at Bani Yas in 2013.
By Ashley Hammond
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