Changing schedule vital to make Etisalat Cup important again

A handful of clubs seem to be taking the Etisalat Cup seriously, and top of the list are Ajman and Al Wasl.

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At the conclusion of this weekend's games, the Etisalat Cup goes away for 10 weeks. That is good news for domestic football fans frustrated by the erratic and haphazard approach to the competition by the nation's top-flight clubs.

The cup is, in theory, the third-most important competition in the country, but the gap between No 2 (the President's Cup) and No 3 is enormous.

Emirates, the promoted side from Ras Al Khaimah, have chosen not to use their first team in the Etisalat Cup. That produces travesties like their 6-0 loss to Al Jazira last week. (Sharjah also lost heavily, 4-0 away to Baniyas, but that was their first team.)

Neither do many top clubs treat the Etisalat Cup like a major competition. Some of that is excusable due to the absence of key players on international duty; Al Wahda were missing something like 11 players last week and Jazira nearly as many.

But the "big" clubs also are likely to see cup fixtures as a time to rest their key contributors.

Something resembling an all-star team could be fashioned from players absent from the starting XI in cup fixtures last week, including David Trezeguet (Baniyas), Matias Delgado (Jazira), Jakson Coelho (Al Ahli), Ciel (Al Shabab), Nabil Dauodi (Dubai), Karim Kerkar (Ajman) and the stingiest goalkeeper in the league last season, Mohammed Al Ghuloom (Baniyas), who has yet to play one minute in the cup this term but has been in goal for all four league games.

A handful of clubs seem to be taking the Etisalat Cup seriously, and top of the list are Ajman and Al Wasl.

The former seem to believe that professionals can play once per week without dire consequences, and the latter are led by Diego Maradona, who apparently has never seen a fixture that does not have a "life or death" cast to it. (He also is helped by the minimal harvest taken from his club for international duty.)

Ajman's enthusiasm for the cup makes sense; a little club, newly promoted, they presumably see the competition as a winnable trophy; halfway through the competition, they are near the top of their group.

At most clubs, the latter stages of the cup are taken seriously only when a semi-final berth is in sight. Until then, it has a sort of improvisational feel; a couple of results early can prompt a team to quit on the competition.

Such was the case with Jazira last season; they lost only once in 27 matches while winning the league and President's Cup double, but they were defeated four times in 10 Etisalat Cup matches, usually from fielding second-tier line-ups.

Certainly, competitions of this sort often are the stepchildren of professional leagues; early rounds of the Carling Cup don't set pulses racing in England. The current holders are Birmingham City; enough said.

Still, the Etisalat Cup could be improved, mostly through adjustments to the calendar.

The first official games of any season should be cup games, as they were this term. Most new players and coaches are eager to make an impression in that first month, and supporters have a natural curiosity about what their teams look like. Thus, the first four rounds were mostly competitive, and attendance was markedly higher (2,173 per match) than it was last term (582).

Cup matches last week and this seem far more like interruptions, and fans feel the same way; the average crowd last week was 674.

At least half of the cup, five rounds, should be contested right out of the gate. Most of the rest should come as early in the new year as possible, with perhaps two rounds held over to paper over the biggest dates on the international calendar. If that means a week without domestic football, so be it.