x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pro League play-offs: Bragging rights a side issue in Sharjah derby

Defeat for Sharjah against their arch rivals will signal the end of their hopes of securing their place in the top flight, says Ahmed Rizvi.

Al Shaab players celebrate their 2-1 victory over Emirates last week. Victory against arch rivals Sharjah tonight will secure them a return to the top flight for the first time since being relegated in 2008/09. Al Ittihad
Al Shaab players celebrate their 2-1 victory over Emirates last week. Victory against arch rivals Sharjah tonight will secure them a return to the top flight for the first time since being relegated in 2008/09. Al Ittihad

The rivalry between Sharjah and Al Shaab ranks among the most celebrated and colourful in the UAE.

Backed up by passionate fans, the two clubs have been involved in many engrossing battles through the years, but few of those games would come anywhere close in importance to their clash at Al Ahli.

A win for Shaab would be the end of a painful three-year wait to return to the Pro League, while a loss for Sharjah would result in an embarrassing relegation to Division One for only the second time in their history; they spent the 1989/90 season in the lower division.

For both sides then, tonight's Pro League play-off match is much bigger than a mere local derby.

"Everybody is talking about this being a derby," said Ahmed Al Junaibi, the Sharjah team manager. "But I am not thinking about this as a derby because getting three points is the most important thing for us, whether we play well or not."

Nasser Al Talyani, a former Shaab player and now the supervisor of the team, added: "This game is more than a derby. I would say this match is a crossroad for both sides with three points being the only consideration."

Meanwhile, Hussein Ghazal, a board member of Sharjah, said: "I wish we were playing this derby game in better conditions than this.

"It would have been nice if we were competing for an advanced position in the Pro League and not for a boarding pass to the top division."

Both teams would have been playing in Division One this season if not for the Football Association's decision to expand the Pro League from 12 teams to 14. Sharjah had finished bottom of the Pro League last season, while Shaab missed out on automatic promotion after finishing third in Division One, behind the automatically promoted Kalba and Dibba Al Fujairah.

The expansion of the Pro League handed a lifeline to the two teams, along with Emirates and Al Dhafra, and Shaab are certainly making the most of their opportunity.

Known as "The Commandos" for their battling performances on the pitch, they played true to their tag in the opening round against favourites Emirates at Ajman on Tuesday, winning 2-1.

The least fancied of the four sides for the two Pro League spots at stake, Shaab came out fighting and clinched three points from the game, their cause helped by an early red card for Haider Ali, the Emirates midfielder.

One more win from their two remaining games, or even two draws, would take them back to the top division.

The equation for Sharjah is a bit different. They lost their opening game, 1-0 against Dhafra, and another defeat, or even a draw, would be the end of their dreams.

"It is a big game for us and we know it is going to be a really tough match," said Marcelinho, the Sharjah striker.

"But we are ready and fully focused on winning this match. If we win this match, we will take one step towards returning to the Pro League."

This is the first time Marcelinho will face his former employers at Shaab since joining Sharjah in 2009. He is aware of the significance of this game among the fans, but the Brazilian says he is treating it like any other match.

"We need to focus on winning this game because we know how important it is for us to get three points from this match," he said. "We are not thinking about this being a derby or looking at the other team. We are just trying to concentrate on winning the match."

There are plenty of newcomers in the Sharajah team after they released 15 of their professionals at the end of last season and added nine new players. For this reason, the game does not feel like a derby to Ali Mohammed, the Sharjah team supervisor.

"This is our first derby match in four years, but it is different now," he said. "Before, at both Sharjah and Shaab, all the players were home-grown, but now most of the players are from outside."

With their five league titles and eight President's Cups, Sharjah have always been the dominant force in the Emirate. Shaab have just one trophy in their cabinet: the 1993 President's Cup.

Even in recent times, Sharjah have dominated the derby games, winning 10 of the 19 matches over the past 10 years. Shaab have seven wins and two draws.

Tonight, however, Sharjah will be the clear underdogs given their losing start in the round-robin format. Al Talyani will, however, said the Shaab players will not be taking the opposition lightly.

"We will not allow Sharjah's defeat in the first game to misleawd us," he said. "We know it will be a tough match because they will be looking to compensate for that defeat and revive their hopes.

"So we will fight until the last second and hopefully get the three points to qualify for the Pro League."

Both set of fans will surely be there in force at the Al Ahli to support their teams. This is the first derby in more than three years and, as the situation stands, there is no telling when the next one might be.

 

arizvi@thenational.ae

 

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