x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Diego Maradona gets defensive

The Argentine is looking forward to atmosphere in stadium, but the Al Wasl coach says there will be players missing.

Diego Maradona is ‘working hard’ and ‘doing his best’ with Al Wasl.
Diego Maradona is ‘working hard’ and ‘doing his best’ with Al Wasl.

DUBAI // Perhaps it is coincidence, but Al Wasl's new line of sportswear is remarkably similar to that of Diego Maradona's old club in Argentina, Boca Juniors. When he appeared for his weekly press conference on Thursday to discuss today's Etisalat Cup match with Al Ain, he could just as easily have walked in from a training session at La Bombonera.

His jacket - dark blue sleeves, yellow vest - screamed Boca, yet he screamed nothing; his words, in slow clear Spanish, were quiet, calculated and considerate. Tonight's match in Al Ain sees the Argentine take charge of his 10th game for the Cheetahs, with a solid if unspectacular record that has seen him win two of his first four league games and three of his first five Etisalat Cup matches.

Yet he has his critics. Many see him as a mere marketing gimmick, some disapprove of his outspoken nature and others feel his tactical decisions show him up as the inexperienced coach that he is. Humbly, however, all he asks for is respect and understanding.

"I would like these people instead of throwing out comments, to come here and have a face-to-face conversation," he said. "If they have suggestions, fine, but don't criticise me from behind the scenes just for the sake of it. Anyone who has any problems can feel free to come and see me and confront me and I will tell them exactly what and why I am doing these things."

The 51 year old reiterated previous statements regarding promises that were made to him before he moved to Zabeel Stadium. "Regardless of this, I am working hard and doing my best," he said. "It is not just that we have some of the lowest paid players in the league here, but they should be paid on time, regardless of injuries."

Wasl have suffered a busier treatment table than most so far this season, but Maradona said injuries will not be the deciding factor for the team he picks to start this evening.

"There will be players missing for this tough match," he said. "But I am confident the team can perform as required. Yes, some players are missing because of injury, but that is not the only reason. Some players have played every match and need a rest, other players have come in and shown enough to warrant a chance.

"It won't be easy, but it is as important to compete in the cup as it is to compete in the league - I have told this to the players. We have no priorities; we want to win every game."

Al Ain and Al Wasl are seen as two of the most popular sides in the country and Maradona added he was looking forward to sampling the atmosphere at Sheikh Khalifa Stadium.

"When I played, I used to love playing in stadiums that were full and packed-out," he said. "Ever since playing with Napoli, I used to love going to stadiums with 100,000 fans. It improves the performance of the players when they are cheering us on, so it will be interesting to see who has the most fans, us or them."

Regardless of the answer, the atmosphere in Al Ain will certainly not match La Bombonera. Yet Maradona, wrapped in his Boca-like blue and yellow jacket, will be acutely aware that a win in the capital will strengthen his position further and give his critics one less opportunity to deride him.

Emirates v Jazira

Ricardo Oliveira and Bare, the Brazilian forwards, each scored two goals last week as Al Jazira crushed Emirates 6-0. In the rematch, the promoted Ras Al Khaimah side should feel more comfortable playing in their home stadium but will be hard-pressed to take a point if Ghazi Ghrairi, their Tunisian manager, continues his pattern of resting first-team players during Etisalat Cup games. Jazira won only 10 points from 10 Cup group games last season, falling far short of reaching the semi-finals. They already have 12 points from five matches this term.

Sharjah v Baniyas

Baniyas will be seeking to build on their best performance when they travel to Sharjah, the bottom side in Group B. David Trezeguet did not play in the 4-0 Baniyas victory last week, and his fitness remains questionable in the rematch. However, Baniyas have enjoyed a goal infusion from Tony, the diminutive former Jazira forward from Ivory Coast; he has four goals in five matches since joining the side. Edinho, the Brazilian midfielder, has been Sharjah’s most productive attacking player, but the hosts have problems in defence, having leaked 14 goals in five Cup matches.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae