x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hassan and Esmail learn to keep friends close and an enemy closer in Arabian Gulf Cup

Playing together for the UAE national team over the years, Majed Hassan and Khamis Esmail have developed a close bond. They have great rapport and consider each other “good friends”. Saturday night, they had to put that friendship.

Al Ahli's Grafite holds off Al Jazira's Abdelaziz Barrada as Khamis Esmail moves to block his patch during the Arabian Gulf Cup final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on April 19, 2014. Grafite hit the equaliser for Ahli at the 69th minute. Al Ittihad
Al Ahli's Grafite holds off Al Jazira's Abdelaziz Barrada as Khamis Esmail moves to block his patch during the Arabian Gulf Cup final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on April 19, 2014. Grafite hit the equaliser for Ahli at the 69th minute. Al Ittihad

Playing together for the UAE national team over the years, Majed Hassan and Khamis Esmail have developed a close bond. They have great rapport and consider each other “good friends”.

Saturday night, they had to put that friendship on hold as their two clubs, Abu Dhabi powerhouses Al Jazira and the newly crowned Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ahli, went head to head in the Arabian Gulf Cup final at swanky Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.

“Esmail is an outstanding player,” Ahli’s Hassan had said before the game. “Off the pitch, we have a strong friendship, which has increased due to our presence with the national team. But we will leave that friendship outside the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

“My goal is to win this final and so I will make sure Esmail poses no threat. I know his every move, just as he knows my game and is aware of my movements on the pitch.”

The two in-your-face, tough-tackling midfielders, however, kept their distance on the pitch, seldom coming into direct contact.

But they were not avoiding each other for the sake of friendship – it was the task they had been given. Walter Zenga had entrusted Esmail with the job of keeping a close watch on Luis Jimenez and Ciel, and he was doing well.

Hassan, who loves making incisive runs in the attacking half of the pitch, was given defensive responsibilities and played just in front of veteran central defender Basheer Saeed.

The super quick Jazira forward duo of Ali Mabkhout and the bulldozing Felipe Caicedo needed young legs owith them, and Ahli manager Cosmin Olaroiu handed that task to his No 88 Hassan.

As promised, both were trying their best for their team, putting their bodies on the line.

Esmail did that in the 64th minute, sliding in to cut off Ciel’s cross and when Jazira went on the break after that, Hassan stopped Abdelaziz Barrada with a crunching tackle and needed medical attention.

Six minutes later though, Esmail walked away dejected from the Jazira box as he looked back to see Musallem Fayez had failed to stop Grafite from heading in the equaliser. Hassan rushed in to celebrate with his teammates in the corner and that is the furthest he had gone across the pitch all night.

In the 81st minute, Hassan made another jog to the other end alongside Basheer Saeed to celebrate Ismail Al Hammadi’s stunning goal.

A few metres behind him, Esmail was making another dejected walk back to the centre line, hand on his hips. The Jazira No 13 was one of the three players Al Hammadi had tricked before finishing with a low toe poke.

As the clock ticked towards the end, the friends did have a mildly unpleasant exchange in the 86th minute when Hassan lay on the ground, clutching his thigh, after a tackle.

Esmail came over and asked him to leave the pitch. That did not go down well with the Ahli man.

A couple of minutes later, Esmail had an argument with Al Hammadi as well after the Ahli goalscorer went down following a tackle.

The unhappy Jazira players believed it was a time-wasting ploy, but Hassan decided to stay away as a number of players got involved.

When the referee blew his final whistle, a dejected Esmail sank to his knees, his dream of being a part of the first team to win a final at the new stadium shattered.

He was comforted by several Ahli players, before Hassan arrived to give him a warm hug.

“I am going to tell him [Esmail] to think about another trophy,” Hassan had said before the game. “Because I am going to make sure we win our third title of the season.”

And he, along with his classy teammates, delivered on that promise.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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