x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pro League promotion dreams closer to reality

These previously unpredictable Pro League play-offs now carry a clear finality.

Al Dhafra's Makhet, right, tries to escape the attention of Sharjah's Salmain. Pawan Singh / The National
Al Dhafra's Makhet, right, tries to escape the attention of Sharjah's Salmain. Pawan Singh / The National

If the opening exchange of these peculiar play-offs were a journey into the unknown for the four teams competing, round two has acquired a certain definition.

Voices from within Sharjah speak of defending the colours of a club that have been crowned champions of their country on five occasions; of fighting "from the beginning to the end" in tonight's crucial match against neighbours Al Shaab.

In the corridors of Emirates, the side that last season finished above Sharjah but sat second last in the final Pro League table, board members implore players to "realise the size of responsibility entrusted to them" ahead of this evening's encounter with Al Dhafra.

Yet despite Dhafra and Shaab last week obtaining three precious points, their respective coaches confirm the job remains only half done. Emphasis is on dealing with the "special stress" provided by the promise of a place in the top flight; the need to "fight" is continually reinforced.

Dzemal Hadziabdic, the Dhafra coach, warned his players in the aftermath of Tuesday's 1-0 victory against Sharjah - a match he described as "life and death" - to focus immediately on the next challenge, the Bosnian condemning complacency and commanding concentration.

The stakes are that high. The quartet contest a place at UAE football's top table, with the two worst teams confined to life in the second tier - an existence their management, nor the raft of new signings they have pinned their hopes on, would welcome.

The sense of apprehension is felt nowhere more acutely than at Sharjah. Once one of the most celebrated clubs in the region, Their crown has not so much slipped, but taken a tumble and wedged itself somewhere below the throne.

Having lifted the inaugural league title in 1974, Sharjah accrued another four and added eight President's Cups. Carlos Alberto Parreira, the only man to coach a UAE side to the World Cup finals in 1990, formed the nucleus of his squad from those who regularly plied their trade at Sharjah Stadium.

Last season's fall from grace was both unexpected (neglecting the fact four different managers were employed) and unwanted. As Sharjah toiled in April, Yousuf Al Serkal, the head of the interim committee running the Football Association who would later be appointed FA president, acknowledged Sharjah's impending relegation was "not in the interest of UAE football and the Pro League".

To suggest that an expanded, 14-team division, and with it the play-offs, was thus born does not constitute groundless cynicism. However, given a second chance, Sharjah stand on the verge of disaster.

Their plight is Shaab's pleasure. Emerge victorious tonight from the Rashid Stadium, and find that across Dubai Dhafra have triumphed against Emirates, and Sharjah will indeed boast a Pro league presence, albeit in the form of the city's second club.

Shaab have been the least flamboyant in the summer transfer window, yet seem set for a lavish nine months following Tuesday's 2-1 win against Emirates. A return to the big time, just like at former Division One rivals Dhafra, is within touching distance.

Yet, still, coach Sergio Alexandre urges his side to "treat this like their last chance of making the Pro League".

Should Dhafra make it, the club's board that sanctioned the recent recruitment of 17 players will breathe a rather large sigh of relief. A Pro League-looking side can now fulfil Pro League ambitions, and vindicate Pro League wages.

Emirates, though, will be out to wreck Dhafra's dreams and recast theirs. Modibo Diarra, their Ivorian forward, declares they have "no choice but to fight for our lives".

This previously unpredictable play-offs now carries a clear finality.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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