x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Regardless of outcome, Etisalat Cup final will be emotional

In this repeat of the 2010 Etisalat Cup final, vindication for Al Jazira manager Luis Milla is on the line while Ajman fans will hope that almost three decades of waiting will come to an end, writes Ali Khaled.

Al Jazira’s Khalid Sabeel, left, and Ajman’s Mohammed Yakoub battle for control of the ball during the Etisalat Cup in 2010. Al Jazira won, 2-0.  Amy Leang / The National
Al Jazira’s Khalid Sabeel, left, and Ajman’s Mohammed Yakoub battle for control of the ball during the Etisalat Cup in 2010. Al Jazira won, 2-0. Amy Leang / The National

Al Nasr's cheerleader, a towering beast of a man, was not pleased. Not one bit. His beloved side were losing the 1984 President's Cup final to second division Ajman, and time was running out.

But the reason for his immediate anger was, from a personal point of view, far more worrying.

My boyhood friend and neighbour, who had convinced me to join him and a small-but-noisy Al Nasr contingent at a mostly empty Zayed Sports City, had committed the unforgivable sin of covering his ears in brief respite from the constant drum banging and megaphone-accentuated chanting of the cheerleader.

We two scrawny teenagers were told exactly where to go if we could not take the auditory heat.

By the time the final whistle sounded, however, the big man's anger had been redirected towards Al Nasr's defeated players.

He screamed "haram aliakum," which translates to "shame on you," as tears ran down his face. With good reason, too Nasr's 1-0 defeat remains arguably the biggest upset in UAE cup final history. And undoubtedly the greatest day in Ajman's.

On Wednesday night at Zabeel Stadium in Dubai, Ajman will aim to repeat that trick, this time in the Etisalat Cup final, against firm favourites Al Jazira.

On paper, it is a mismatch, as cup finals often are. Or at least, seem.

As far as cup final clichés go, this one ticks off all the boxes.

The club from the capital is looking to save what has been, by their own lofty standards, a disappointing season.

Against the humble regional team that has exceeded all expectations.

Third place in the Pro League takes on 10th.

Jazira, of course, defeated Ajman in the 2010 final. Surely, the cup is heading back to the capital. But it is rarely that straight forward. Traditional wisdom dictates that the form book is thrown out of the window.

That is not strictly true; very often the team coming into the final off a better sequence of results approaches the day with more confidence, and consequently wins. Winning, after all, is a good habit to pick up.

Here, the sides are evenly matched, with both unbeaten in their last three matches.

But it is hard to look past the fact that Jazira have one of the strongest squads in the league; Ivorian captain Ibrahim Diaky; the Brazilians Ricardo Oliveira and Fernandinho; Argentina's Matias Delgado; and UAE Gulf Cup heroes Ali Mabkhout, Ali Khasief and Khamis Ismail.

On the other hand, Jazira seem to have spent the season lurching from one crisis to another, most of them self-inflicted. Since replacing the Brazilian Paulo Bonamigo with former Spain Olympic coach Luis Milla in February, their Pro League campaign has disintegrated.

The cups have provided a welcome distraction, though their Asian Champions League and President's Cup hopes have both expired since Milla's arrival.

Now the Etisalat Cup is their final shot at success. More importantly, it could be the last chance for Milla to prove that he is the right man for the job.

For Ajman coach Abdulwahab Abdulqadir, the picture is far rosier. Safety in the Pro League has been guaranteed. Cup success would be a huge, and mostly unforeseen, bonus.

Nor has it been an easy ride. In fact, to reach the final, the Orange Brigade had to beat Al Shabab 2-1, the UAE's sole remaining representative in the Champions League. They now have a chance to put that 2010 loss behind them and win their first piece of silverware in almost three decades.

"The Etisalat Cup suits teams like us," Khalifa Al Jarman, the chairman of Ajman's board of directors, said before the semi-final. "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."

Having achieved that aim, it would be understandable, if a little patronising, to think Ajman's fans will, win or lose, enjoy their day out. The same cannot be said for edgy opponents that have far more to lose than win.

Should, after 29 years of trying, Ajman pull off another stunning win, there will no doubt be plenty of grown men crying at Zabeel Stadium. From both sides.


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