x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Al Ahli-Al Ain offers plenty of subplots

John McAuley poses five key questions for tomorrow night's title-implicating clash.

Cosmin Olaroiu, left, will have to watch from the stands as his Al Ahli side square off with Quique Sanchez Flores' Al Ain club on Sunday. Antonie Robertson and Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Cosmin Olaroiu, left, will have to watch from the stands as his Al Ahli side square off with Quique Sanchez Flores' Al Ain club on Sunday. Antonie Robertson and Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Al Ahli host Al Ain tomorrow night in a match that could have far-reaching consequences in the 2013/14 Arabian Gulf League campaign.

Hostilities between the two sides are already strong, and gained further fortification with last week’s sanction of Cosmin Olaroiu by the Football Association disciplinary committee.

The former Al Ain coach is now the manager at Ahli – a transfer that riled the UAE champions and prompted legal action – while, in his latest guise as Al Ain coach, Quique Sanchez Flores faces his old side for the first time, too.

Keeping up? If so, take a look at five key questions generated by this highly anticipated encounter.

How will Sanchez Flores approach the match?

Plain and simple: Al Ain need to win. The champions are already playing catch-up in a league that allows little room for error, even though pre-season predictions implied this might be its most competitive campaign yet. Eight points behind Ahli after six rounds, the opportunity to make a considerable dent in that lead must be taken.

A summer of significant change undoubtedly contributed to Al Ain’s slow start – they have won half their league fixtures thus far – but the club cannot dwell long on the recent past.

Undeniably, Sanchez Flores is a coach of real pedigree, and his inclination to attack will best serve him here. That he returns to the Rashid Stadium for the first time since his departure should only increase the desire to leave with three points.

Have Ahli really clicked?

Six victories in six games would suggest so, but in truth, the Dubai club have laboured in the majority of those. Last-gasp strikes initially secured the points against Dubai and Al Wahda, while the October triumph against Emirates was resolved in a frantic final five minutes. In fact, Ahli have matched their pre-season promise only in the clashes with Al Nasr and Baniyas.

The well-worn adage that a mark of a true champion is to win when below par finds merit, but Ahli’s toil could supply Al Ain with optimism, too.

The champions will unquestionably offer Ahli their stiffest examination yet, and will test whether their title rivals really have what it takes to prolong a challenge. Olaroiu will be eager to prove those championship credentials here, though, in what would be a decisive blow in the race for honours.

Where will the battle be won or lost?

It does not surprise that centre-forwards Asamoah Gyan and Grafite have maintained their prolificacy, each ably supplied by a stellar support cast. For Al Ain, the return to full fitness of Alex Brosque, and the recent national-team performances of Omar Abdulrahman, augur well, while Michel Bastos is finding his feet. Ahli, however, boast a significant threat in Ciel, Luis Jimenez and Ismail Al Hammadi.

Both back lines will therefore need to stand firm. Ahli appear better equipped, having conceded half the goals they had after six matches last season.

Conversely, Al Ain are more porous, yet fault can be found in the space in front of defence. Thus, the control of midfield holds the key. Hugo Viana dictates Ahli’s play, but should Mirel Radoi shackle the deep-lying playmaker then Al Ain will prosper. Considering tensions between the clubs, keeping cool heads is paramount.

Can anything be gleaned from their Super Cup clash?

Truth be told, not much. Understandably, given the teams involved, the season-opener was considered to offer a major indicator of how the campaign would play out, but it subsequently provided scant conclusive evidence. In a match of few real chances – the stifling August heat contributing to a stalemate – Ahli sneaked the term’s first trophy via a penalty shoot-out.

Yet a lot has changed since. Back then, Ahli were coming to terms with how Olaroiu wanted them to play, while Al Ain were feeling the effects of a disruptive pre-season.

They were also in the process of pushing a manager through the exit door.

Make no mistake: this will be a very different encounter to the one that preceded it.

Olaroiu hinted as much in the aftermath of the Super Cup, noting: “We’ve won the battle, but not the war.”

How will Olaroiu’s ban affect the match?

It may have garnered plenty of column inches in newspapers, but the impact should be minimal. Granted, Olaroiu cuts a commanding figure on the touchline, and his presence alone can influence not only his players, but the officials, too. However, his omission will not be felt as acutely as has been made out, since he will be in the changing room before the match, and at half-time. In Fabio Cannavaro and the Emirati back-room staff, Olaroiu has more-than-capable assistants, who are well-respected by the players. His absence could actually galvanise the team, as it can provide extra impetus in an encounter that already stirs the blood. Victory for Ahli would not only represent a huge step toward a first top-flight title in five seasons, but grant Olaroiu the perfect riposte in his squabble with his former club.

jmcauley@thenational.ae