x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Super Cup will give an early taste of what's in store

The result of the Super Cup between Al Ain v Al Ahli could give us an early hint as to which of the rivals will be celebrating in the Arabian Gulf League come May.

Asamoah Gyan, second left, trains with the rest of his teammates in Abu Dhabi last night. Satish Kumar / The National
Asamoah Gyan, second left, trains with the rest of his teammates in Abu Dhabi last night. Satish Kumar / The National

Domestic curtain-raisers between league champions and cup holders end up as one of two things.

They become a glorified friendly - see Manchester United's walk in the park against Wigan Athletic in England's Community Shield earlier this month, or Juventus beating Lazio 4-0 in the Italian Supercoppa.

Or they turn into grudge matches with a bit of carry-on from the previous season and ramifications for the next one, like Borussia Dortmund's 4-2 win over Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup.

Thankfully for Emirati football fans, tonight's Super Cup clash between Al Ain and Al Ahli at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi looks likely to fall firmly into the second category.

Last season, Al Ain comfortably beat Ahli to win the Pro League title. The Dubai club got their revenge by knocking out the champions in the President's Cup semi-final before winning the trophy.

Matches between the clubs invariably descended into ill-tempered, petty affairs. There were goals, dismissals and crowd trouble.

The battle to sign Ibrahim Diaky, the Al Jazira captain, this summer did not help relations. Having flirted with Al Ahli, he eventually opted for Al Ain.

Then there was the small matter of manager Cosmin Olaroiu defecting from the Garden City to Dubai, a move that shocked UAE football.

Perfect ingredients, it seems, for a high-octane clash that may just set the tone for the rest of the season.

Olaroiu and new Al Ain coach Jorge Fossati, not surprisingly, are playing down tensions. The season is two weeks away and the last thing either wants are injuries or disciplinary action against key players because people got carried away.

Both will also be aware that even a convincing win this early in the season can be misleading. Al Ain may have been scarred by their opening-day 6-3 thrashing at home by Ahli at the time, but in the long term it mattered little.

Ahli finished the season in second, but at no point did they really look like overhauling their rivals, who topped the table almost from start to finish. It is a marathon and not a sprint.

The fans, on the other hand, will have no such reservations; for them, tonight's match is about bragging rights which they can claim until the first league meeting on November 24 at Rashid Stadium in Dubai.

Al Ain's noisy travelling support will be looking forward to their first glimpse of Diaky and new Brazilian wideman Michel Bastos, and seeing how well they settle in midfield alongside main man Omar Abdulrahman.

And despite Fossati's call for respect, expect Olaroiu to come in for some not-so-good-natured attention from his former supporters who now consider him a traitor.

In the Ahli camp, all eyes will be on former Portugal international Hugo Viana. Signed from Braga, Viana, 30, is perhaps the star addition to the Arabian Gulf League. The man who was once Europe's most expensive teenager will be hoping to settle in better than compatriot Ricardo Quaresma did last season. His midfield partnership with Luis Jimenez could be key in their title challenge.

Ahli also signed Humaid Abbas from Al Nasr, and intriguingly, the live wire Brazilian striker Ciel from Al Shabab, who starred in his club's progress to the knockout stages of the Asian Champions League and the President's Cup final.

In fact, his immense performance in that match against Ahli, may well have sealed his move to Rashed Stadium.

Off the field, Ahli will be keen to portray a shift in power towards Dubai. With the Olaroiu coup and the appointment of former captain Fabio Cannavaro as his assistant coach, the club is positioning itself as perhaps the most progressive of the Arabian Gulf League clubs. The message for foreign players is clear; Dubai is the place to be.

Al Ain, for their part, are also moving on to bigger things, quite literally. In October, the club is set to move to the state-of-the-art, 40,000-capacity Hazza bin Zayed Stadium near Jebel Hafeet.

Few followers of Emirati football expect the league title to end up anywhere but Al Ain or Ahli.

Tonight's result could give us an early hint as to which of the rivals will be celebrating come May.



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