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.
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?