On the charge

Olaroiu’s Al Ahli kick off new sea­son with penalty shootout tri­umph over ri­vals Al Ain to lift Su­per Cup.

The National - News - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Os­man Sami­ud­din os­ami­ud­[email protected]­ational.ae

To be at the Mo­hammed bin Zayed Sta­dium on Fri­day night for the Ara­bian Gulf Su­per Cup fi­nal was to be, in al­most ev­ery sense, at the cen­tre of the UAE foot­balling uni­verse.

Not only was the coun­try wit­ness to a bat­tle be­tween the two pre­em­i­nent sides from last sea­son, Al Ain and Al Ahli, but here lay a broader af­fir­ma­tion of what feels in­creas­ingly like a global foot­balling truth.

The two clubs are not just the coun­try’s best cur­rent sides: in the mod­ern-day in­car­na­tion of the UAE pro­fes­sional football story, they are form­ing what looks sus­pi­ciously like a duopolis­tic dom­i­nance. Con­sider some num­bers.

The two sides have won seven of the past 12 league ti­tles. A case can be made to throw Al Jazira into that mix and if you do, you will find in that trio hav­ing won a stag­ger­ing eight of the past 10 Pres­i­dent’s Cups.

With Ahli’s an­nex­a­tion of the Su­per Cup last night, it meant that th­ese two had won four of the six since the tro­phy be­came a reg­u­lar fea­ture again.

Per­haps the suc­cess is not yet as con­cen­trated as in some Euro­pean leagues but given the smaller size of the league, it some­times feels just as much.

On the ev­i­dence of trans­fer ac­tiv­ity this sum­mer and this sea­sonopen­ing fi­nal that dom­i­nance looks set to con­tinue.

That much was ev­i­dent even be­fore a ball was kicked, in­deed at least 90 min­utes be­fore any­one was out on the pitch. By then the sta­dium was al­ready heav­ing with the sup­port­ers of the two sides and many more milled out­side.

Ar­guably, only a clash be­tween th­ese two sides can be re­lied upon to cre­ate the kind of mag­i­cal, un­ceas­ing and in­volved at­mos­phere that this game was played to; eas­ily over 20,000 were in at­ten­dance on a de­bil­i­tat­ing evening.

That sup­port is not in­dica­tive just of pass­ing pop­u­lar­ity. It speaks highly of two well-or­gan­ised and main­tained clubs that re­alise the im­por­tance of their sup­port and it is of a kind that is al­most un­matched in the land.

There were more ob­vi­ous signs as well. On the field on Fri­day evening, for in­stance, could be seen in ac­tion 12 of the 23 play­ers called up for the national squad to play in the OSN Cup in Saudi Ara­bia next week.

It can be rea­son­ably ex­pected that as many as seven play­ers who played in this Su­per Cup might be in Mahdi Ali’s start­ing XI.

It is not quite to the level that Barcelona have dom­i­nated Spain’s start­ing XI in re­cent years, but it is not far off.

More clues can be found in clubs’ deal­ings over the sum­mer. Noth­ing spoke as loudly of their com­bined dom­i­nance as Cos­min Olaroiu’s switch from Al Ain to Ahli. Was there any other club the Ro­ma­nian would have con­sid­ered go­ing to other than Ahli once he had de­cided he had done what he needed at Al Ain?

Ahli have made the big­gest sign­ings this sum­mer, not least their ac­qui­si­tion of Hugo Viana, who made a quiet de­but here but is un­likely to re­main so; it is un­likely he would have played too of­ten in such heat.

They have also brought in the Brazil­ian Ciel, but it is prob­a­bly their shrewd lo­cal deals that are a more re­veal­ing fore­cast of why they are so strong.

The best-per­form­ing sides in the UAE, in­evitably, are those with the best lo­cal play­ers and their ac­qui­si­tions of Ab­du­laziz San­qour and Walid Ab­bas are key ones.

No less telling was the club tak­ing a chance on last night’s hero, Ma­jed Naser.

Al­most an out­cast af­ter his trou­bles at Al Wasl, Ahli brought him in last sea­son and as he saved two penal­ties, it was easy to see why his time with them has brought him back into the national squad.

Al Ain may have been qui­eter but they re­tain at their core the league’s most po­tent for­eign and lo­cal player and a clutch of play­ers who will not be bested eas­ily.

Not much di­vided the two teams last night and there was a pleas­ing sym­me­try about each dom­i­nat­ing one half be­fore penal­ties de­cided their fates.

But if Ahli had the last laugh last night, it is im­pos­si­ble not to see Al Ain hav­ing a few as well this sea­son; or, con­versely, too many other clubs hav­ing any over the next few years.

Satish Kumar / The National

Satish Kumar / The National

Al Ahli fans were in the Mo­hammed bin Zayed Sta­dium in Abu Dhabi well in ad­vance be­fore the game de­spite the heat.

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