x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Abu Dhabi football rivals up for 'biggest game in President's Cup history'

If the President's Cup final between Jazira and Wahda tonight is not the biggest match in the history of UAE club football, it certainly must be in the discussion.

Al Wahda coach Josef Hickersberger knows the President's Cup is the only chance his side have to win a trophy this season.
Al Wahda coach Josef Hickersberger knows the President's Cup is the only chance his side have to win a trophy this season.

If the President's Cup final tonight is not the biggest match in the history of UAE club football, it certainly must be in the discussion.

Al Jazira, unbeaten in Pro League play for 14 months and 23 matches and desperate to win, at long last, one of the country's two most prestigious trophies, take on Al Wahda, Pro League title holders and four-time league champions in the last 12 years, as well as the 2000 President's Cup winners.

An extra element launches this match at Zayed Sports City Stadium into the stratosphere of domestic ties: the clubs are arch-rivals who share Abu Dhabi Island, each respectful of the other but also more than a bit envious, keen to assert their dominance (Jazira) or to maintain it (Wahda).

"We can call this final as the biggest in the history of this competition," said Haider Ali, the Wahda captain, noting that the clubs are meeting in the cup final for the first time in its 37-year history.

"The President's Cup is played in Abu Dhabi and with the two biggest clubs in the city in the final for the first time this has turned out to be bigger than a derby game."

Jazira have lost only three league games in 59 matches since the summer of 2008 and have finished no lower than third since 2003. Yet the club have never won the league, which this season they lead by 10 points with seven matches to play, and they have played for the President's Cup title only once, losing 3-1 to Al Ahli in 2002.

That would seem to place the pressure to win, at last, on Jazira, but their coach, the Brazilian Abel Braga, denies such is the case.

"I don't agree that the pressure would be on us, because we still have a chance to win the league and Wahda has only the President's Cup for a title hope," he said. "Nevertheless, it is a big game for both teams."

Josef Hickersberger, Wahda's Austrian coach, conceded this is his club's last shot at a domestic trophy this season, but he said it will be Jazira straining under the weight of expectation.

"For sure this is the best chance for us to win a trophy," he said. "Obviously there is pressure, but more will be on Jazira because they are the best team and favourites. Anyway, it is a final and it's a pressure game for all, the players and coach."

Jazira's focus on winning tonight was demonstrated in an Asian Champions League match in Saudi Arabia last week. They left home nine of their first XI, to rest, for an away match at Al Hilal. The second team lost 3-1. On the same night, Wahda played their best team against the Saudi side Ittihad and lost 3-0.

"We have been preparing for this game for a long time," Braga said. "Last season we tried to win all the tournaments and lost all of them.

"This season we decided to concentrate on the league and we are in a good position. But having reached the cup final, we want to win that as well."

Jazira have promised gifts to all their fans, with Dh150,000 in prizes being distributed should the club win. They predict that more than 25,000 of their supporters will attend the game, which could easily push the attendance over 35,000 tonight.

Hickersberger concedes Jazira have been the country's top side this season but feels he has the team to stop them.

"They are undefeated in the league and they have played consistently well," he said. "But my team can beat them.

"We came very close to doing that last time we met in the league [March 25 in a 2-2 draw], and if any team can beat Jazira, it would be us, Wahda."

Saleh Obaid, the Jazira captain, expects a taut match.

"It is just one game now and it's not going to be easy for either team," he said. "One team has to lose at the end and let's hope it's not us."

 

apassela@thenational.ae