Few who were at last May’s President’s Cup final in Abu Dhabi will forget the day in hurry. The books show that Al Ahli beat Al Shabab 4-3 to claim their record-equalling eighth title. But that only tells part of the story.
Thousands of fans travelled from Dubai, turning Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium into a sea of red, black and green. They were rewarded with arguably the most exciting final the competition has ever seen.
It proved that, although the Arabian Gulf League title remains the biggest prize of all, the cup continues to have a special place in the hearts of Emirati football fans.
For both clubs, cup success translated into excellent league form this season.
Ahli are at the top of the table, with Shabab second. Add Al Nasr in third, and league table has a distinct feel of Dubai dominance to it.
For Abu Dhabi’s two biggest clubs, the cup competitions seem to provide the most likely chance of success this season.
Monday night’s local derby between Al Jazira and Al Wahda in the President’s Cup takes on far more significance than it would otherwise.
Jazira, champions as recently as 2011, are in eighth place, 10 points behind Ahli, while their opponents from across the capital are three more points behind in 10th.
Recent form suggests Jazira have a slight edge, having beaten their rivals 4-3 at Al Nahyan Stadium last month in Jose Peseiro’s first match in charge of Wahda.
Both clubs, however, go into the match on the back of encouraging draws against the country’s two top teams.
Jazira’s 2-2 draw with Ahli last week, when the former scored a last-gasp equaliser, at least raised spirits following the previous week’s home defeat to Nasr.
Similarly, Wahda’s fans will be heartened by their recovery against Shabab at home. Having conceded a first-minute goal, Peseiro’s men managed to snatch a point thanks to a second-half leveller by new signing Sebastian Tagliabue, one of the club’s true bright spots.
Goals, it would seem, are not a problem for either club. Although both have identical marks in league play – 18 goals scored and 16 yielded – it is Tagliabue who could prove the difference. He has plundered nine goals in the league, and teammate Damian Diaz has weighed in with another five. It will be interesting to see if Peseiro is tempted to give Ismail Matar, the UAE captain, a start.
Having halted the progress of high-flying Shabab, however, he will be wary of trying to fix something that is not broken.
“I think, still, we played better than the last two games and I hope we can take that momentum forward and perhaps win the next game,” Peseiro said.
That next game happens to be the pick of the round of 16, but despite the fact it is between the capital’s two main rivals, it is not taking place in Abu Dhabi.
With the competition’s rule dictating the match be staged on neutral ground, the game will be played in Al Ain, a 90-minute trek for fans of both teams. Unfortunately, the attendance will inevitably suffer.
Jazira will be more concerned with what happens on the pitch. The best team in the country two years ago, the club is in danger of being cast adrift from the Dubai clubs and champions Al Ain.
Coach Walter Zenga has already shown that he is not afraid to go down the pragmatic route to ensure his team get the right result. He may deny it, but if that means a touch of catenaccio defence, then so be it.
“We played the best we could. They attacked more than us simply because they were a goal down,” he said after Wednesday’s draw against Ahli.
“That’s natural, but it does not mean we played defensively. We have players like Nelson Valdez, Oliveira and Abdelaziz Barrada. You cannot call them defensive players.”
Indeed, but first he will look to Ali Khaseif and his defenders to keep Tagliabue quiet.
Do that and Abu Dhabi bragging rights, at least in the President’s Cup, will be there for the taking.
Whether that will signal a capital revival in the league is another matter.