A case of mixed priorities for teams
It is the time of year when the nation's 12 top-flight clubs take a look around and decide where their priorities lie. If they are realistic, they will focus on winning … something.
The pecking order in domestic competition is this: Pro League, President's Cup, Etisalat Cup. And somewhere along the way clubs will do the calculus pertaining to not-quite-domestic competitions such as the Asian Champions League and even friendlies with prominent foreign sides.
Which brings us to the Sunday match between Al Ahli and AC Milan as well as the Tuesday friendly between Al Wasl and Hamburg SV. Those match-ups will not generate recognisable trophies, but the regional and even global attention at stake might call for a supreme effort.
Most UAE football fans remember Al Ain's 1-0 victory over Juventus on January 5, 2003. That was the Juve of Del Piero, Trezeguet, Nedved, Zambrotta and Conti, and coached by Marcello Lippi, They were the defending Seria A champions and en route to another - as well as to a runners-up finish in the Uefa Champions League.
But Mohammad Omar, the national team captain for much of that decade, scored in the seventh minute, beating Gianluigi Buffon. Omar called it the best goal of his life, and it probably was, because we are still talking about it.
Al Ahli may want to make to make the same sort of total commitment against Milan because, despite their expenditures on Fabio Cannavaro and Dennis O'Leary, they are not well-positioned to win anything else.
Meanwhile elsewhere, Al Wahda, surprisingly, may be in a similar situation to Ahli and their season is looking as if it has reached a crossroads.
They lag 14 points behind Al Jazira in the Pro League and they are bottom of the Group A table after six rounds of the Etisalat Cup.
They are one of 16 sides who can still win the President's Cup, but those are steep odds on that happening.
There is, however, the Champions League, beginning in March, and Josef Hickersberger may husband his resources for a push there.
At Jazira, unbeaten and five points clear, that elusive first Pro League championship is paramount. Baniyas remains within striking distance of its own first title. Ahli have an outside chance, 12 points back but a game in hand. For everyone else, the 2010/11 league ship appears to have sailed.
For the Chasing Pack of the top flight, the President's Cup offers hope; Emirates won it last season even while en route to relegation, and that led to a Super Cup victory in August and a place (if not much of a chance) in the Champions League.
The Pro League also-rans also may aspire to victory in the Etisalat Cup, which resumes with Round 7 tonight and tomorrow.
The Cup this season is a lengthy competition, 10 matches to determine semi-finalists, but its significance is not matched by its duration. Still, one trophy is better than none, and some clubs unlikely to win anything else may turn up their enthusiasm for the Cup even as others slog through.
Al Ain, Al Dhafra, Al Wasl and Al Shabab will advance to the semi-finals if the current table-placings hold. Al Nasr and even the promoted sides Kalba and Dubai remain within striking distance of the top-two group finish required to reach the final four.
Thus, we can expect to see nearly half the league keen to perform well as Cup group competition continues through January 21. And one of them, Al Ain, still can make a mark in the Champions League, too.
Thus, we have identified Something Worth Playing For at 11 of the 12 top-flight clubs. The 12th is Sharjah, a side with a prominent place in domestic history.
They are, however, buried in the Etisalat Cup and already eliminated (at the hands of Masafi) from the President's Cup.
A top-three Pro League finish (and an Champions League berth) is not out of the question, but it is the last of six clubs in the third-place chase.
Sharjah may, then, want to see if AC Milan have another date on their schedule before they leave the country.
Published: December 30, 2010 04:00 AM