Al Ahli and Al Ain contest the President's Cup semi-final Saturday night against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the two. John McAuley reports.
President's Cup: Al Ain brace for semi-final grudge match with Al Ahli
Well, hasn't this just got rather more interesting?
In fact, given the current "Bieber fever" gripping the UAE, perhaps the only way this skirmish could get any more frenzied would be if pop's new prince were to parachute into Abu Dhabi's Al Nahyan Stadium at half time.
The origins of the enmity have been somewhat unsavoury.
First, there was last month's league contest between the two, interrupted at 0-0 when an object hurled from the stands housing the Ahli support struck a referee's assistant.
The official required treatment to a gushing wound; the match, already in injury time, concluded prematurely.
Days of deliberation at the Football Association's Disciplinary Committee settled with Al Ain awarded a 3-0 victory - all but sealing the title - and Ahli subjected to the staging at neutral venues of two home fixtures, both to be played in the absence of their fans.
Ahli cried foul; Al Ain was content in the drawing closer of a second successive top-flight trophy.
However, they would soon sound objections of their own.
Perhaps in a direct retort to the Disciplinary Committee's punishment, Ahli aired grievances about the perceived heavy-handedness of Al Ain's players during that fateful league encounter, and Mirel Radoi and Yousef Ahmad were served retrospective two-match bans.
That the sanction surfaced 24 hours before Al Ain's home tie with Dubai, where the hosts confirmed the championship, particularly irked Cosmin Olaroiu, the club's coach.
The Romanian, visibly riled despite the title celebrations around him, used the post-match media briefing at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium to highlight the considered injustice - huge HD television, countless slow-motion replays, wide-mouthed journalists and all.
"If you have to win or you have to lose, you have to have dignity. Some people have and some people don't," said Olaroiu, in what seemed to be a thinly veiled jibe at the Ahli board.
It will have only stoked fires ahead of this evening's cup clash. Such is the concern regarding the relationship between the two clubs that in Thursday's meeting to coordinate the semi-final - obligatory for all games in the competition - the FA committee member assigned to the match requested the careful management of a potentially negative atmosphere.
Flames are not to be fanned.
The controversy surrounding the match should not distract from the genuine sporting friction shared by this season's top two sides.
If the hostility, however slight, first raised its head above the parapet in pre-season when Grafite, Al Ahli's persistent goal gatherer, proclaimed his challenge to Asamoah Gyan, his Al Ain counterpart, for the 2012/13 Golden Boot, then it sprouted another layer on the opening day of the campaign.
Hosted by the champions, Ahli ploughed through the Garden City to depart 6-3 victors.
Al Ain, understandably wounded, resolved to reinstate their apparent superiority: they won 14 of their next 15 league matches.
"This is a very dangerous situation," said Quique Sanchez Flores, the Ahli coach, in the aftermath of his side's dismantling of Al Ain. The Spaniard was referring to a predicted increase in Ahli's ambitions off the back of that whirlwind result, but he could easily have been talking about the effect on those vanquished.
Al Ain will therefore again have revenge on their minds, and what better retribution than denying their most recent rivals a place in the final of the President's Cup?
Ensuring the Dubai club finish the season without a trophy should focus minds.
Rightfully, it has been advised that antics off the pitch must not impact what promises to be a mighty meeting on it, but then sport does not work that way; the subplots add further spice to this crucial confrontation.
"The things that have happened in the past couple of weeks and the extra meaning behind this game, if you use that to motivate you in the right way, can help," said Alex Brosque, the Al Ain attacker.
Motivation, be it rooted in professional vanity or otherwise, will certainly not be lacking here.
MEMORABLE MATCHES BETWEEN AL AIN and AL AHLI
Al Ain 3-6 Al Ahli, September 23, 2012
Al Ain began their title defence inauspiciously, conceding five second-half goals. In the personal battle between strikers Asamoah Gyan and Grafite, the Brazilian came out on top, scoring four goals to his rival’s two.
Al Ain 5-1 Al Ahli, February 8, 2010
Ahli, UAE champions, travelled to the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium intent on avenging an earlier 5-1 home defeat to Al Ain, but left the Garden City further embarrassed. It was the beginning of Henk ten Cate’s short reign at the Dubai club. He resigned one month later.
Al Ain 2-2 Ahli (Ahli win on pens), September 24, 2009
It took nearly two hours for the two sides to be separated in this season-opening Super Cup clash, with Emerson, Al Ain’s new recruit, the undoubted star. The Brazilian scored twice and then dispatched the decisive penalty in the shoot-out. Ahli had played extra time with 10 men.
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