Only a few kilometres separate Al Jazira's Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium and Zayed Sports City – on a good day it takes less than 15 minutes to complete the journey by car – but the road to Wednesday's Fifa Club World Cup semi-final tie against Real Madrid has been a long one for the Arabian Gulf League champions, with much of it paved with uncertainty.
Al Jazira wrapped up the AGL title at a canter earlier this year, earning the Abu Dhabi side a place at the Fifa Club World Cup as champions of the host nation. Their celebrations at the end of the last season were, however, tempered by a Fifa rule that stated their participation in this month's tournament was dependent on the winner of this year's AFC Champions League "not being affiliated to the UAE FA". At the time, Al Ain and Al Ahli were both still in Champions League contention, setting up the possibility that the Abu Dhabi club's party would be ruined by one of their two divisional rivals. In the end, Al Ahli slipped up in the round of 16, while Al Ain were knocked out in the quarter-finals.
While Al Jazira's AGL title defence has fizzled this season – the team sit in mid-table – their Club World Cup campaign has burned bright. A single goal victory over Auckland City saw the Abu Dhabi side through to the quarter-finals, where they beat Urawa Reds, winners of the AFC Champions League, to set up tonight's clash with the world club champions Real Madrid.
The Spanish champions are, as The National reported, big box office wherever they go. Their training sessions since arriving in Abu Dhabi have been played out before generous galleries, with supporters craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the footballing stardust that is Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric et al. Such is Madrid's popularity in the Arab world, one wonders who will have most support in the stadium tomorrow. As a newspaper produced in Abu Dhabi, we will be backing Al Jazira and hoping they pull off one of the shocks of the season, if not the century, to beat the champions of Spain, Europe and the world. If that happens, then Al Jazira can rightly claim to be world-beaters, even if the Galacticos will always be associated with Spain.