The time to shake off Al Ain’s inferiority complex has arrived.
Whenever Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal are pitted against them, a strange reticence and deference sweeps over the UAE’s most-decorated club.
It cannot reappear in Monday night’s latest meeting. This fixture will either ignite or virtually end hopes of progression into the 2018 AFC Champions League’s group stages.
The stakes are that high. And in a notable change to the usual power dynamic, Hilal have rarely seemed comparatively weaker.
Diffidence from Omar Abdulrahman and Co was on show throughout the summer’s 3-0 thumping in the 2017 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals, as well as the one-sided meeting in the 2015 edition’s semi-finals.
Even February 13’s goalless draw can be seen through this prism. Although eminently creditable on the surface, the Crescent were less than two weeks away from dispensing with once-lauded Argentine coach Ramon Diaz.
Shows of respect towards a fellow Arabian Gulf colossus are acceptable. We are talking about the continental competition’s last two runners-up, plus leaders of their respective domestic leagues.
More signs of submission will lead to a result that almost guarantees an embarrassing failure to make the round of 16 for the first time since 2013.
For once, Hilal are there for the taking.
A long-term injury to 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin caused him not to be registered for the early rounds. Influential Saudi Arabia midfielders Salman Al Faraj and Nawaf Al Abed are also both sidelined, while their Swiss Army knife of a colleague Salem Al Dawsari continues to collect rust on the training pitches at La Liga’s Villarreal.
Argentine forward Ezequiel Cerutti has one goal in 10 run-outs since a winter switch from San Lorenzo. Morocco attacker Achraf Bencharki isn’t faring much better with two goals in nine matches during the same period.
There is also the small matter of Saturday’s shootout with great rivals Al Ahli Jeddah for the 2017/18 Saudi Professional League’s crown.
With Hilal currently in possession of a slender one-point lead and just one fixture left after the meeting at King Abdullah Sports City, minds could wander in the Garden City.
Especially when their Asian aspirations are in converse health. Juan Brown’s men have never before gone seven matches without victory in the ACL.
With just two points in Group D with two games left, they are on life support.
On paper, winless Al Ain only having double this tally thanks to four-successive draws hardly seems much better.
Yet they showed supreme character during their double header with Iran’s Estaghlal. Rare profligacy from 20-goal Sweden No9 Marcus Berg previously prevented deserved victory against Qatar’s Al Rayyan.
Positivity should be boundless after news broke during the international break that newly-capped Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat was signed up permanently until 2021. The 25-year-old has contributed seven goals and 12 assists in 12 matches since a loan arrival from Misr lel-Makkasa.
After a fitful campaign, 2016 AFC Player of the Year and crown prince of UAE football Abdulrahman conjured two clutch set-pieces to see off Al Jazira previously in the league.
He will also be refreshed and fired up after a forced exile during the international break for breaking curfew before January 5’s Gulf Cup final loss to Kuwait – in which he missed two spot-kicks.
In El Shahat and ‘Amoory’, the Boss have a double threat to instil fear in any opponent.
Coach Zoran Mamic must now press the launch button against Hilal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. This rare chance to strike cannot go to waste.
The Clarets raced into a two-goal lead on the half-hour mark at an electric Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Thursday. UAE winger Tareq Ahmed curled a beautiful shot into the bottom corner against the run of play, before Argentine predator Sebastian Tagliabue placed an unstoppable header home for his record-breaking 14th goal in the 2017/18 edition.
A rollercoaster second period was sparked by Brazilian playmaker Ronaldo Mendes’ 61st-minute header for the Cheetahs to shorten their disadvantage. Wahda then saw both full-backs sent off, Ahmed Rashid walking for two yellow cards and Mohammed Al Menhali seeing red for stepping on Abdulla Saleh courtesy of VAR.
But despite their numerical advantage and six minutes of additional time being played, Wasl could not end their eight-year trophy drought.
SPRINGBOARD TO SUCCESS
Steady work over several seasons, an alien concept in the capricious Middle East, has continued to reap rewards for Wahda.
A pair of AG Cup wins now sandwich 2016/17’s President’s Cup.
There has been a change of management in this period as Romania’s Laurentiu Reghecampf replaced Mexico’s Javier Aguirre last summer. But the decision to consistently make minor changes to the playing roster has consistently delivered trophies.
Success breeds success. This is why Reghecampf is right to believe a four-point gap to Arabian Gulf League-leaders Al Ain can still be closed, as well as a rescue job pulled off in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR RODOLFO?
A miserable 2018 continues to plumb new depths for Wasl.
It’s now just two wins in 13 matches since the end of January. Injuries bite hard in the small Cheetahs squad, but this was not an excuse on Thursday.
Antipathy has grown towards coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena after he failed to rouse his troops, despite playing more than 15 minutes against nine men. This is an alarming state of play when your contract expires in June.
The 42-year-old had rehabilitated his managerial reputation with last term’s shock second place in the league. Those memories risk being forgotten.
MOVE AWAY FROM MATAR
Amid the celebrations for Wahda, it is important to centre on an important changing of the guard.
Ismail Matar is arguably the most-important figure in the club’s 44-year history. The idea of the 34-year-old forward being an unused substitute in a showpiece was unthinkable even 12 months ago.
Now, it barely registers as an afterthought. An association stretching back more than two decades may soon end.
A late disagreement between organisers the Pro League Committee and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club about rental fees for their Rashid Stadium saw Thursday’s showpiece moved to the Garden City on Tuesday. This change meant the Clarets head back to the site of March 1’s humiliating 6-2 loss to Al Ain that has caused serious damage to hopes of lifting a first Arabian Gulf League title since 2009/10.
But speaking in Wednesday’s pre-match press conference, Reghecampf was not unduly concerned.
“There is no pressure on the players,” said the Romanian, who suffered a family bereavement this week.
“Hazza bin Zayed Stadium is a beautiful setting. We have to rejoice in the final and not think about the past.”
Wahda lifted this trophy back in 2015/16 and then added the next season’s President’s Cup. In contrast, opponents Wahda are enduring an eight-year trophy drought and their recent collapse in form includes one win during eight matches.
Boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena challenged his beleaguered troops to “show the strong side” against Wahda.
He said: “This a very important game and both teams deserve to be in the final.
“We have to show the strong side of Al Wasl to win the title.”
Wasl have never featured in the AG Cup final before, while Wahda have won one and lost one.