DUBAI // Quique Sanchez Flores has welcomed the prospect of having Grafite back in the side for Thursday night's derby at Al Shabab, although the Al Ahli manager says the Brazilian is not guaranteed to start.
The absence of the 19-goal forward has not particularly dented Ahli's title aspirations, though, as the Dubai club remain well-placed to challenge at the top of the table, although they remain 10 points behind the leaders Al Ain.
Grafite's availability this evening proposes a potentially prolific partnership with Ricardo Quaresma, the talented winger who joined Ahli last month.
The two have not yet played together, but that is expected to change at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium.
"I'm excited to see Grafite playing alongside Quaresma on the pitch; having these two players in the team will not affect the game plan but I think they will gel together very well," Sanchez Flores told the Pro League website.
"[Grafite] is a very important player for us, although we do not rely on just one player as there is fierce competition between all our goalscorers: Luis Jimenez, Ismail Al Hammadi, Ahmed Khalil and Ricardo Quaresma. He will have to prove himself to ensure his place in the starting line-up."
Blunting Ahli's attacking threat will be integral to Shabab's maintenance of their current good fortune.
Marcos Paqueta's men are arguably the league's in-form side - Al Ain aside - having secured seven victories in their past seven games.
They have also progressed to the group stages of the Asian Champions League.
It marks a stark contrast to the last time they met Ahli in the league, when Shabab were resolutely beaten. Paqueta's charges lost 5-1 to their neighbours, with Grafite scoring a hat-trick.
However, given recent results, the Brazilian coach understandably cuts a confident figure.
"Grafite's return will be a big bonus for Al Ahli, but my side hopes to put in a good enough performance to win the game regardless," he said. "We enter the game in very high spirits, particularly after a string of positive results on both local and regional fronts, and herein lies the difference between us and Al Ahli: we are competing in various different competitions whereas they are simply focused on the league."
With Shabab in fifth position, and Ahli directly above them and four points better off, the match presents a strong opportunity for Paqueta's side to gain ground in the chase for a top-four finish. Last week, they defeated Al Nasr to go past last year's runners-up.
"Our aim is to keep progressing up the league and secure a spot in the top four," he said. "In this game of two neighbours, whoever can keep calm and cool in front of goal will be the team to take home the three points."
Shabab will hope Edgar Bruno and Ciel can continue their recent form; they have 24 goals between them in all competitions.
Ahli will be without the suspended defender Abdulaziz Haikal.
Al Ain v Dibba
Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach, has told his players not to take Dibba Al Fujairah for granted when they meet the relegation-threatened club. “This is the most important game for us at the moment. I want all my players to respect them and play true to our potential,” he said. “Dibba have improved so much recently.” Dibba beat Al Dhafra 3-2 and were just beaten by Al Ahli, 1-0 in the President’s Cup, and Al Shabab, 1-0 in the league.
Kalba v Al Nasr
Al Nasr travel to Kalba with the aim of bouncing back from their 3-2 home defeat to Al Shabab last week. Despite the loss, which dropped them to sixth in the table and 15 points behind the leaders Al Ain, Walter Zenga, the Nasr coach, say he has the quality in his squad to finish second in the league. Nasr are six points behind Al Jazira and Baniyas, in joint second, and Zenga will not want anything less than three points.
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