The Ajman players have bene promised a cash bonus if they reach the final, while Al Shabab will look to record their third win over the same opponents in this year's competition when they meet in the semi-finals.
Etisalat Cup suits modest Ajman's objectives
DUBAI // Ajman have modest Pro League aspirations. Having survived in the top division last year, they want to make sure they stay on for a third consecutive season. In the Etisalat Cup, however, their ambitions are much higher.
"The Etisalat Cup suits teams like us," said Khalifa Al Jarman, the chairman of Ajman's board of directors.
"We have already reached the final of the tournament once and we want to get to the final again this time because this tournament fits our circumstances."
Ajman are just one win away from achieving that dream. They need to beat Al Shabab in today's semi-final to match their feat of 2009/10, when they beat Al Ain on away goals in the then-two-part semi-finals before losing to Al Jazira in the final.
But in the Pro League that same season, the club finished at the bottom of the table with just eight points, winning only two of their 22 matches.
"The Pro League is different," Al Jarman said. "The top teams have a number of UAE national team players and quality foreign professionals, and to attract those players, you need extensive material resources."
Ajman, of course, do not have the resources to match clubs such as Al Ain, Al Jazira or Al Ahli, hence their modest ambitions. The Etisalat Cup, however, does give them a chance.
The tournament is usually scheduled around international games, when the Emirati and foreign players are busy with their national team commitments.
"The goal set by the club's board was clear from the beginning," Al Jarman said.
"After returning to the Pro League [in 2011/12], we want to maintain our presence among the elite for three consecutive seasons.
"And I don't think that is undervaluation. We are being realistic and fully understand the realities on the ground."
The team, led by the Iraqi Abdulwahab Abdulqadir for the second successive season, seems well on their way to achieving those goals. Finishing seventh last year, ahead of Al Wasl and Baniyas, they are currently 10th on the Pro League table, eight points clear of the relegation places, despite a difficult start that saw the team plagued with injuries.
First, Ajman had to go looking for a replacement after the playmaker Karim Kerkar was injured and ruled out for the first half. The replacement, Moroccan Abdessamad Ouhaki, also struggled with injuries and, according to Al Jarman, Kerkar's injury affected the performance of Iraqi Karrar Jassim as well.
"Everybody is saying that Ajman were better last season," Al Jarman said.
"But we have to understand the circumstances we have gone through. When Kerkar got injured, it left a big hole in the midfield.
"Then Jassim and Ouhaki got injured, as well, and it affected our performances significantly. We never had all four of our foreign players on the pitch in any game in the first half."
Jassim and Ouhaki were both replaced in the January transfer window, by Fawzi Bashir and the Moroccan Driss Fettouhi, but the changes did not improve their fortunes. They lost three league matches in succession, before recovering to hold Shabab 2-2 and defeat Kalba 3-0.
They meet Shabab again, for the fifth time this season, and the Ajman management have promised bonuses to the players if they win this game and reach the final.
"The club officials have met the players regularly over the last few days to keep them motivated," said Ahmed Abdullah, the administrative manager of the team.
"So the players are really in high spirits and keen to achieve our dream of reaching the final and winning the title."
Meanwhile, the Al Shabab coach Marcos Paqueta expects a tough game against Ajman today when the two teams meet in the Etisalat Cup semi-final.
Shabab and Ajman have already met four times this season with Paqueta’s men splitting points in two Pro League games and winning two Etisalat Cup matches, including the last one that confirmed their place in the last four.
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