On the charge
Olaroiu’s Al Ahli kick off new season with penalty shootout triumph over rivals Al Ain to lift Super Cup.
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.
Al Ahli fans were in the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi well in advance before the game despite the heat.