x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The painful twists and turns of the play-offs

Sharjah and Emirates supporters roar on their sides to the bitter end but Division One football awaits, writes John McAuley.

Sharjah fans went through a range of emotions during the play-off match last night.
Sharjah fans went through a range of emotions during the play-off match last night.

If the supporters of Sharjah or Emirates were worried about the future of their respective clubs, they did well to conceal it.

With the stakes last night soaring as high as the temperature at this final, crucial round of play-offs, the Maktoum bin Rashid Stadium should have been enveloped in anxious silence.

Instead, Emirates were welcomed on to the pitch pre-match with lively Arabic verse, led by the ceaseless pleadings of a conductor-in-chief, armed with loudspeaker and a sturdy set of vocal cords.

Scarves were thrust aloft in constant rotation; drums were beaten.

Emirates, the worst placed of the four teams going into last night's closing fixtures, may appeared set for relegation, but at least they would be dragged into Division One kicking and screaming.

Sharjah's followers were not quite as vocal - the venerable club perhaps had most to lose - but greeted with resounding cheers confirmation of each name on their team sheet.

The loudest was saved for Marcelo Oliveira, the Brazilian striker who ensured the five-time UAE champions entered this match with one foot still in the Pro League.

A repeat of his last-gasp goal against Al Shaab in round two was the order of the evening, although, such were the labyrinthine workings of these perplexing play-offs, that maybe three Sharjah points would not even have been enough. In the end they were not.

Whether or not the four-team tournament has been a success, it has provided plenty of conjecture.

Upon securing a convincing 5-1 victory against Emirates last Sunday, Dzemal Hadziabdic, the Al Dhafra coach, spoke post-match of much-deserved rest, his mission accomplished following successive wins.

Dhafra, he assumed (along with the gathered media and UAE FA officials), had sealed promotion with a game to spare.

The festivities proved only fleeting.

It soon became apparent, by some quirk involving goals scored, vigorous tappings of calculators and many a sore head, that any of the four clubs could claim the two places on offer in the top flight.

Having spent a summer swelling their playing staff with 17 new players, Dhafra grew tense. Fail to gain promotion, and the club's recruitment committee would face serious inquisition.

As it transpired, the team enjoyed a joyous journey back from Al Ain's Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium, despite, somehow, following a defeat to Shaab, who finished the match with 10 men.

The Western Region club can now look forward to a season of consolidation among the elite, their talented tandem of Makhete Diop and Amara Diane sure to offer sleepless nights to even the Pro League's most accomplished defenders.

They will meet Shaab in the top tier. Sharjah's second club, the least productive in the transfer window, still took risks in adding expensive experience in Rodrigo Vergilio, Michael N'dri and Khalid Darwish.

However, they have usurped their city rivals; their gamble handsomely rewarded.

And what of Sharjah? The illustrious club drafted in nine new players in a desperate attempt to cling to their Pro League position, but they will sample the grim surroundings of Division One for the first time in 22 years. 'The King' dethroned, their future seems uncertain.

For Emirates, too, the close-season acquisitions of Nestor Ortigoza, Haider Ali, German Herrara and Hassan Maatouk - all at a significant outlay - proved a game plan backfired.

The Ras Al Khaimah side will presumably want to relieve themselves of their stars but, judging by Ortigoza's adverse immobility throughout the play-offs, it will take considerable effort to shift one of their biggest earners.

So, in a frantic climax last season's two worst Pro League teams were relegated. Two weeks of inconvenience could have been easily spared, although last night's drama ensured the riveting ride was worth it.