the big match Al Ain v Al Ahli

The UAE’s two most suc­cess­ful sides of re­cent years do bat­tle tonight at the Hazza bin Zayed Sta­dium. John McAu­ley looks at the main talk­ing points.

The National - News - Sport - - LEADING OFF - jm­[email protected]­ational.ae

Will Diop hit the ground run­ning?

As if the fix­ture could not get any tastier, on Thurs­day, Al Ahli com­pleted the trans­fer of Makhete Diop, the freescor­ing striker from Al Dhafra. Diop, who scored 134 times for his for­mer club, had been heav­ily linked with Al Ain be­fore his sur­prise move to Dubai. He is ex­pected to go straight into the team for the clash at Hazza bin Zayed Sta­dium, which is great news for Ahli since they have found it dif­fi­cult this sea­son to con­vert chances. Diop’s record against Al Ain, though, does not make for pleas­ant read­ing: three goals in nine matches. Ahli will crave an im­me­di­ate im­prove­ment on that.

Can Ab­dul­rah­man dic­tate again?

Typ­i­cally, much will de­pend on Omar Ab­dul­rah­man’s abil­ity to con­trol the match. The Al Ain play­maker, the Asian Player of the Year, was ex­cel­lent in the Pres­i­dent’s Cup vic­tory against Ahli on Mon­day, scor­ing twice and help­ing cre­ate the other in the 3-1 win. Ab­dul­rah­man’s all-round play makes him the game’s prin­ci­pal pro­tag­o­nist once more, es­pe­cially with Ever­ton Ribeiro, his coun­ter­part at Ahli, sus­pended. The vis­i­tors will most likely charge Khamis Es­mail and Ma­jed Has­san with shack­ling the Al Ain cap­tain. Both are in­ter­na­tional team­mates who know him ex­tremely well. Stop­ping Ab­dul­rah­man is eas­ier said than done, though.

How will the of­fi­cials fare?

The fall­out from Mon­day’s match fo­cused on the ref­eree, who was heav­ily crit­i­cised for a num­ber of con­tentious de­ci­sions. Al Ain said Caio had a goal wrongly dis­al­lowed, and Ahli were the more ag­grieved since their ri­vals were handed a way back into the game late on with the du­bi­ous award of a penalty. Mean­while, Al Ain’s Is­mail Ahmed prob­a­bly should have been sent off. As such, Cos­min Olaroiu used his pre-match news con­fer­ence to call for bet­ter of­fi­ci­at­ing, and it would be a shame if a match of this mag­ni­tude were again tainted. The per­cep­tion is that an Al Ain bias ex­ists. The man in the mid­dle needs a strong game.

Can Ahli rise to the chal­lenge?

Ahli sit fourth in the ta­ble, one point and one spot be­hind Al Ain and four points off the sum­mit. Be­fore their vic­tory against Baniyas in the last round, chair­man Ab­dul­lah Al Na­boodah said the UAE cham­pi­ons re­quired two wins from their next two league matches to have any chance of re­tain­ing the ti­tle. Pre­dictably, Olaroiu re­minded on Thurs­day that there re­mains much to play for in the sec­ond half of the sea­son, but this does feel like make-or­break for Ahli. They can­not slip far­ther be­hind Al Ain, who have two games in hand. So Ahli must han­dle the pres­sure. A pos­i­tive re­sult de­pends on it.

Who wins the tac­ti­cal bat­tle?

The league’s two most suc­cess­ful man­agers go head-to­head with not much sep­a­rat­ing them. In 11 meet­ings since Zlatko Dalic ar­rived at Al Ain in 2014, both he and Olaroiu have four vic­to­ries each. They ob­vi­ously recog­nise one an­other’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but Olaroiu may have the up­per hand given he man­aged Al Ain for two years be­fore his con­tro­ver­sial switch to Ahli. For this en­counter, much will cen­tre on where Dalic em­ploys Ab­dul­rah­man, who was used as a false nine to great ef­fect on Mon­day. How­ever, Olaroiu main­tained this week that he has pre­pared for ev­ery even­tu­al­ity. Was it un­shake­able self-be­lief or sim­ply false bravado?

Satish Kumar / The Na­tional

The Na­tional file photo

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