x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Status quo is the way forward for Al Ahli in absence of Grafite

Omar Mohammed and Abdulla Essa are likely to start as Ahmed Khalil is on national duty ahead of Etisalat Cup game against Al Shabab.

Grafite, the Al Ahli striker, has to serve a six-match suspension for elbowing a player. Pawan Singh / The National
Grafite, the Al Ahli striker, has to serve a six-match suspension for elbowing a player. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // Al Ahli will have to make do without their most influential player tomorrow night as the defending champions attempt to reignite their stuttering Etisalat Cup campaign against Al Shabab.

Grafite, the club captain who has scored 19 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions this season, begins a six-match suspension received last week for violent conduct.

The Football Association's disciplinary committee found Grafite guilty of elbowing opponent Hassan Zahran during the President's Cup clash with Al Dhafra on December 19, an act that left the defender with a broken tooth and prompted a public rebuke from Ahli of their star striker.

Grafite was also fined Dh15,000 by the FA committee.

However, Ahli have since revealed plans to appeal the severity of the ban, which takes effect for the first time in tomorrow evening's Group C tie.

The loss of Grafite is accentuated by Ahmed Khalil's unavailability, too, as the Emirati forward is with the UAE national team preparing to contest the Gulf Cup, starting tomorrow in Bahrain.

Given his limited options up front, Quique Sanchez Flores, the Ahli coach, may be forced to revert to the same attacking line-up that failed in the last round to breach the Dibba Al Fujairah defence, when Omar Mohammed and Abdullah Essa struggled to make an impact.

That 3-0 reverse saw Ahli remain rooted to the bottom of their four-team group with only one point from three games. It marks a disappointing return for the side who in May lifted the trophy following a penalty shoot-out victory against Shabab, their Dubai neighbours.

Predictably, Grafite was on the score sheet that night at Al Maktoum Stadium, the Ahli marksman equalising from the spot midway through the second half to take the match into extra time and swell his tally to 13 goals in 12 Etisalat Cup matches.

Shabab will no doubt be heartened tomorrow night by the prolific 33 year old's omission, although they travel to the Rashid Stadium in fine form themselves.

Marcos Paqueta's men have won their past six matches – five in the Pro League – to move to sixth in the table and ease the pressure on their manager, while the 3-2 victory against Ajman in Round 3 of the Etisalat Cup sees them top the pool with seven points from a possible nine.

Edgar Bruno should once again represent the principal threat to Ahli, the Brazilian striker having notched four goals in the cup so far this season. The 26 year old is most likely to form an attacking triumvirate with compatriots Luiz Henrique and Ciel, as the match may come too soon for the recovered Carlos Villanueva, the Chilean playmaker who has been out since March with a knee injury.

Tomorrow night's other matches

Baniyas v Al Dhafra

Three points for Baniyas tomorrow night in their home game against Pro League strugglers Al Dhafra will move them ahead of Al Jazira into second place in Group B of the Etisalat Cup behind Al Wasl.

Baniyas improved their chances of making the semi-finals with a 2-1 victory over Kalba in their last match to take their tally to six points with four games remaining.

Dhafra are also on six points, but they fielded a second string team in the 1-0 defeat to Jazira as Laurent Banide, the coach, above, opted to give some of his fringe players an opportunity.

Dubai v Al Shaab

Dubai and Al Shaab, the bottom two teams in the Etisalat Cup Group A, may use this game to experiment as both side have slim hopes in going beyond group stage.

Al Shaab are on one point from four games in the cup. They have picked up just one point in their last 10 Pro League games and their new coach Marius Sumudica will no doubt use the match to learn about his squad ahead of an important second half of the league season.

Dubai have just three points and would need to win all their remaining games to have any chance of progressing.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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