Spain and Barcelona legend Xavi is standing in the way of Al Jazira’s 2016 AFC Champions League hopes after Qatar giants Al Sadd were pitted against them in the qualifying play-offs.
The 2014-15 Arabian Gulf League runners-up and third-placed Al Shabab both face one-off ties to make the continent’s premier club competition. They learned their fates on Friday, ahead of December 10’s group stage draw.
Jazira will host centre midfielder Xavi’s men on February 9 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, with Shabab travelling to Uzbekistan on the same night to play Bunyodkor.
The Hawks will hope to avoid a similar fate to their Abu Dhabi rivals, who lost 2-1 in Tashkent to miss out on the 2015 edition. Sadd also dumped out Al Wahda on penalties at the same stage.
If either UAE side emerges victorious, they will join top-flight champions Al Ain and President’s Cup winners Al Nasr in the full tournament.
Elsewhere in the draw for the West Zone, Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad will play Jordan’s Al Wehda and Iran’s Naft Tehran host Qatar’s El Jaish.
The UAE have enjoyed a renaissance in the ACL during the past two years. Al Ain made the semi-finals of the 2014 version, while Al Ahli suffered a narrow 1-0 aggregate loss in the final to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande last month.
Zlatko Dalic has rejected the view Saturday night’s tantalising top-of-the-table clash in the Arabian Gulf League against Al Ahli is a battle of the bosses.
The Croatian’s holders host red-hot 2015 AFC Champions League finalists at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, who have won a perfect seven out of seven top-flight matches to sit second with two games in hand.
The fixture also pits the current Al Ain boss against an illustrious predecessor in Cosmin Olaroiu, who lifted the 2011-12 and 2012-13 top-flight titles with them before making a tumultuous defection.
“In the match against Al Ahli, we realise that they are a strong rival and we respect them as we respect all our competitors,” said Dalic.
“But they have so far not faced any team as strong as Al Ain in the league and we did not have an opponent of Ahli’s strength.
“I wish to succeed and give happiness to our fans loyal during this confrontation and offer a match worthy of Al Ain’s name. We will not get into a fight and there is no direct competition between me and any coach and my focus is only on setting up the team.”
Dalic and Olaroiu have met each other in nine previous matches in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. They have both claimed three victories each, with the other three ending in stalemates.
The sides last met in May’s ACL round-of-16 double header, a thrilling 3-3 second-leg draw in the Garden City sending Ahli through on away goals. Olaroiu’s charges have rebounded in style from an awful title defence in 2014-15, sitting one point
Their upturn in form also saw them narrowly lose out on Asia’s premier club crown, falling to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande last month.
The Romanian declared his players must treat this match like the continental decider to stand any chance of success. He said: “If we want to improve the team and develop our level as a group we have to deal with every game and take responsibility.
“This is the same level at which we played in the AFC Champions League final. We should do it in front of Al Ain or Sharjah or Dibba Al Fujairah or any other team if we want to get to the summit.”
UAE international Saeed Al Kathiri is expected to retain his place up front for the Boss even if Nigeria striker Emmanuel Emenike is passed fit after a hamstring complaint.
Al Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue’s lethal form continued as his double ensured new Al Dhafra boss Mohammed Kwid suffered an opening 3-0 defeat on Friday.
The 30-year-old extended his lead at the top of the Arabian Gulf League scoring charts as he moved onto an impressive 12 goals in nine top-flight appearances.
His contribution continued the Clarets’ revival and pushed them up into fourth – the final Asian qualification spot. Veteran forward
Ismail Matar got the hosts to the perfect start, smashing in from the edge of the area in the fourth minute.
The match was finely poised at the break after Tagliabue was denied an opener by the post, but the Argentine was not to be kept out for long. He outmuscled Iraq centre-back Ahmad Ibrahim to slot in during the 46th minute, marking his return from suspension at the death by racing through unopposed to grab his second.
Kwid’s debut for his third spell in charge of the Western Knights was made more miserable as Abdalla Al Naqbi was dismissed for two yellow cards and Sharjah’s surprise 2-1 victory against 10-man Al Wasl in the night’s other match saw them dumped into the relegation zone.
The King fought back from a goal down thanks to Brazilian striker Wanderley’s double, gifting interim coach Abdulaziz Al Anbari his first victory at the second time of asking.