DUBAI // What kind of a reception will Majed Naser receive when he returns to the Zabeel Stadium tonight as an Al Ahli player?
That question seems to be dominating the headlines on a day that sees two Dubai derbies - with Ahli meeting Al Wasl and Al Nasr taking on Al Shabab - and a potentially decisive clash between the bottom-placed teams Dibba Al Fujairah and Al Shaab.
Naser spent seven years at Wasl before he was packed off to Ahli last September, hours before the close of the summer transfer window, following a tumultuous season.
The goalkeeper first received a 17-match ban for slapping his current coach Quique Sanchez Flores after Wasl's 1-0 loss to Ahli in the semi-finals of the Etisalat Cup in March,
Then, three months later, his red card in the 10th minute of the second-leg of the GCC Champions League final at the Zabeel Stadium cost Diego Maradona his first title as a manager.
Wasl fans have still not forgiven Naser for that indiscretion, if you believe the chatter on the internet, and the goalkeeper is expecting a difficult time on the pitch.
"I don't expect the Wasl fans to be very welcoming when I return to the club because I understand they are upset," Naser said. "
"But if their reaction is bad, I will make sure my reaction is good. My focus will be on how I can help Ahli get three points from the game, and that is the most important thing for me."
Sanchez Flores is confident Naser can do that, despite the goalkeeper's volatile past, and the Spaniard said: "Maybe Majed will be booed by the fans of his former club, but he is a big player and a professional, and he knows what to do on the pitch.
"He has been really good for us since his first official game with Al Ahli against Al Dhafra [in the President's Cup] and I believe he will not pay any attention to the boos or react to any other provocations from the public."
Naser's performance in the game will be critical as Ahli chase a Champions League spot for next season. They are currently fourth in the points table with 27 points - behind Al Ain, Al Jazira and Baniyas - and the Dubai club will be hoping to inch their way into the top two to make sure of qualifying for Asia in 2014.
Nasr and Shabab will have similar ambitions when they meet earlier in the evening at the Maktoum Stadium, high on confidence after booking their place in the group stage of the Asian Champions League through the play-offs on Saturday. Shabab, on a 10-match unbeaten streak in domestic competitions, stretched that run to Asia, defeating Saba Qom 5-4 on penalties in Iran and Marcos Paqueta is hoping his team will show similar fighting spirit at Nasr.
Shabab and Nasr have met twice this season. Walter Zenga's men took the first game, a Pro League engagement, 4-2, Paqueta's team got their revenge in the President's Cup with a 3-1 in the round of 16.
"This game will not be any different from our past matches against Nasr," Paqueta said. "Both teams are evenly matched and both are on a high after qualifying for the Champions League. This game is now an opportunity for us to prove we deserve our place in Asia."
Baniyas, who are also in contention for a top-two finish, host Dubai in the second match of the night and coach Jozef Chovanec has called on his players to forget about their President's Cup defeat to Al Ain on Sunday and focus on improving their position in the league.
"We played well against Al Ain, but we did not get the result we wanted," Chovanec said. "Now we should compensate our fans through strong performances in the league and make sure we finish in a position that is befitting the stature of the stars we have in our team.
"The players need to redouble their efforts in the coming period to make sure we not only maintain our position on the points table, but climb higher."
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