Al Shabab were the least fancied out of the country's four representatives in the Asian Champions League, but they have proven to be this season's cup kings.
UAE hopes ride on shoulders of Al Shabab in Asian Champions League
One by one, the UAE’s finest fell. Meekly. Today, Al Shabab are the last Emirati team standing in this season’s Asian Champions League.
The Dubai club were perhaps the least fancied out of the country’s four representatives, but they have proven to be this season’s cup kings, reaching the President's Cup final only days after securing top spot in their Champions League group and qualification to the last 16.
Now they are entrusted with making sure that the positivity and momentum engendered by the UAE Gulf Cup win in January is not overshadowed by what has largely been a pitiful Pro League showing in the continent’s premier competition.
And they must do it by overcoming the team that eliminated UAE champions Al Ain; Esteghlal, two-time winners and one of Iran’s and Asia’s most successful clubs.
The stakes could not be higher, and not just for Al Shabab.
Two weeks on from the conclusion of the group stages, it is time to face the harsh realities facing the best that the Pro League has to offer; that the consequences of elimination are far from merely psychological, of being about wounded pride.
For the last five seasons, the UAE has commanded four spots in the Champions League, three teams going directly into the group stages and one into the preliminary qualifying play off round.
The UAE is also currently in second place behind Qatar as West Asia’s best ranking nation. But such solid statistics, boosted by decent Emirati results in recent years, could take a battering if this season’s poor showing is repeated over the coming seasons.
The AFC assessment process for the ranking is complicated and is based on factors such as competitiveness, professionalism, marketability and financial status.
While these factors are difficult to implement, losing a Champions League spot so soon after expanding to a 14-team division could prove harmful to the health of the still fledgling UAE Pro League.
None of which really should be Al Shabab’s concern at the moment. Certainly, for coach Marcos Paqueta, it is an unfair burden to carry.
The Brazilian, installed for his second spell at the club after Paolo Bonamigo’s move to Al Jazira, has enough on his plate without worrying about the rest of the league.
“This team has the potential to do better and my objective is to prepare them for next season,” the Brazilian said last week.
“That is the long-term objective, but my immediate task is to finish as high as possible in the Pro League, to go as far as possible in the Asian Champions League and to prepare for the President’s Cup final.
Indeed, some might say that such ambitions are more than the club can handle, considering it’s relatively modest resources. However, Paqueta has shown since taking over that he is adept at juggling his priorities to suit every occasion.
Now he must make sure that his players are not bogged down by the wider significance of this match in the long term.
It really is, as coaches are often keen to stress, time to take one game at a time. Certainly any lead to take to Iran next week would be welcome, although a clean sheet, even in a 0-0 stalemate, will be seen as a positive result if the likes of midfielder Azizbek Haydarov.of Uzbekistan and Brazilian striker Edgar can repeat their President’s Cup second leg heroics next week in Iran.
It will not be easy. Esteghlal’s 84,000 capacity Azadi Stadium remains one of the more daunting venues in Asian football. And under 49-year-old former Iran international Amir Ghalenoei, the club stands on the brink of a record-breaking ninth league title.
On the continent, however, the Tehran team find themselves in a similar situation to Al Shabab. Of Iran’s three representatives in the group stage, only they survived and similarly now carry the hopes of their nation.
The tie could come down to who handles this pressure better.
Where Al Ain, Al Nasr and Al Jazira have buckled under the expectation, or simply to superior opponents, Al Shabab have throughout the campaign reveled in being underdogs, going about their business in relative anonymity.
That has changed in the last few weeks. They now carry the hopes of the country. Tonight, and next week in the shadow of the imposing Alborz mountain range.
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