SHARJAH // Toni Oliveira still struggles with the names of some of his players. The former Portuguese international has been working with Sharjah for less than a fortnight and he has had little time to familiarise himself with his squad. Call them what he may, the former Benfica and Sevilla coach is determined to win tonight's AFC Champions League play-off against Indian champions Dempo and book a spot in Group B of the tournament, where Iran's Persepolis, Al Shabab of Saudi Arabia and Qatar's Al Gharafa await.
If Sharjah succeed, the UAE will have four representatives in the Asian championship, the same number as powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Japan and South Korea. The defending UAE league champions Al Shabab, runners-up Al Jazira and President's Cup winners Al Ahli have qualified directly for the main draw. "The club's reputation is at stake," said the 62-year-old Oliveira, who took over the reins at Sharjah after Yousuf al Zawawi stepped down following a string of poor results. "We we have a big task ahead and we didn't really have the time to do things the way we would like.
"In the short time that I have been here, I can vouch that we have the talent and drive to reach the main draw of the Champions League and fight for the championships at home. I don't think our results reflect our true potential. My job will be to change that." Though this will be his first foray in the Asian championship, Oliveira is not a stranger to continental success having guided Benfica to the European Cup Final in 1988.
He is not making any similar promises for Sharjah. "We can dream about the Champions League, but we must go step by step," he said. Oliveira has done his homework on the Indian champions, with extensive video analysis. The club had also sent two of their officials to watch Dempo in action and Oliveira is confident his side are ready for the 2008 AFC Cup semi-finalists. "They are not an unknown side to us," he said. "We have a plan in place for them and I hope we can implement it on the day. We will have to work hard; victories don't come on a golden plate. I will ask my players for just one thing: to fight on the field and win, and defend the reputation of the team."
The Indian I-League champions Dempo have been struggling to keep pace this season and have problems ahead of tonight's game. Languishing fourth, the defending champions have had a porous defence this year and are also missing out on two foreigners from the permissible quota of four players. With the Brazilian Roberto Mendes 'Beto' Silva manning the midfield and Ranty Martins of Nigeria up front, Dempo's last-ditch attempts to register Rodrigo Silva - Beto's brother - was unsuccessful. Worse, their main defender Mahesh Gawli - the highest paid Indian defender - has not fully recovered from a hamstring injury but will be forced to take the field to aid his depleted team.
The Dempo coach Armando Colaco said of Sharjah: "They are a strong side and it is going to be a tough match. We have to prepare accordingly." Indian football is not exactly thriving and the country's sports minister yesterday took a swipe at the national team. Speaking at a function celebrating the 1956 India team that finished fourth at the Melbourne Olympics, Manohar Singh Gill said: "I don't know what has happened to Indian football.
"Now, they may even get beaten by the Australian school team. Even now, you may beat the present Indian team by two goals." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org