x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Etisalat Cup: Al Nasr 0 Al Ain 0

Match between in-form Pro League teams ends in a tepid draw as players are short of inspiration at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium.

Al Ain players, in white, were dominant against Al Nasr at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium. Al Ittihad
Al Ain players, in white, were dominant against Al Nasr at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium. Al Ittihad

DUBAI // In truth, a match that pitted two of the top teams in UAE football should have inspired rather more enthusiasm. Al Ain, the Pro League champions, faced Al Nasr, the team they beat to the title last season, at the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium, but these were pale shadows of their usual selves that shared a dull draw.

Unfortunately, the Etisalat Cup tends not to occupy the highest positions pre-season in a club's list of priorities. It was reflected in the twin team sheets: Nasr, effectively the "home" side - their Al Maktoum Stadium is undergoing renovation - were without their foreign stars, with only Nashat Akram, the Iraqi midfielder, on international duty.

Giuseppe Mascara, the summer signing from Italian side Novara, was not included in the squad for this Group A encounter; neither were Leonardo Lima and Bruno Correa, the Brazilian pair.

Al Ain, meanwhile, fielded a side missing the attacking talents of Asamoah Gyan and Alex Brosque, while Mirel Radoi, their captain, was also not involved. Jires Kembo Ekoko, recruited at the end of August from the French side Rennes, provided the substance to the youthful visitors, with Omar Abdulrahman and a host of his compatriots busy with the UAE national team.

Significantly, both sides needed victory to make ground on Al Wahda, leaders by some distance in the cup's top pool. However, there was the distinct sense that the usually indomitable duo has their minds on grander assignments.

"This was a chance to give the other players an opportunity, to keep them at the same level as their teammates and make sure they're ready when we need them," said Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach. "We cannot expect the motivation of the players to be the same as in the league. But in the end it is a competition and the players go on the field to try and win. This is what we ask.

"We tried to play, like always, to win the game. We created seven or eight clear chances to score, but in the end we drew."

Al Ain, dominant throughout, would have taken the points if it had not been for the profligacy of Mohammed Naser. If the striker was aiming to use the game to stake a claim for the shirt of Gyan, scorer of 14 goals in seven Pro League matches this season, then he spectacularly squandered his opportunity.

His best hopes of breaking the deadlock came in a pair of one-on-ones midway through the second half, yet twice he dawdled to allow Abdulla Ali, the Nasr goalkeeper, to advance from his line and block the effort.

A frustrated Naser proved just as wasteful in the air, too, continually finding no way past Ali with a collection of close-range headers.

For their part, Walter Zenga's men were merely a fleeting threat, the defender Ahmed Ali failing to direct on target his first-half header, with Hassan Mohammed nodding wide in the closing stages the home side's only other decent foray into the Al Ain penalty area.

"Overall the match was good as we were missing five major players," said Zenga after watching Nasr all but slip out of the competition. "So we were trying to give another chance to other players and we're satisfied with the performance.

Of the continuing struggles of the Etisalat Cup, Zenga said he would prefer the tournament to be played as a prelude to the Pro League campaign, adding: "I told my club at the start of the season that I wanted to use the Etisalat Cup to field only local players. This is just my opinion, it is up to other coaches to approach it how they choose."