ABU DHABI // It matters not to Al Wahda, the Pro League champions, that Al Ahli, their Dubai rivals, have captured most of the attention during the build-up to the new season, firstly with the signing of Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 World Player of the Year, and then with the capture of David O'Leary as an equally high-profile manager.
Nor does it concern the Abu Dhabi-based table-toppers that the Dubai club have prised away Pinga, the Brazilian playmaker and one of their most high profile players, in the hope of tipping the balance in what promises to be a keenly-fought campaign. The Wahda squad are still celebrating taking what they consider to be the biggest prize of all from Ahli - representation in the Club World Cup on home soil in December.
Haider Ali, the Wahda captain, confessed to being overjoyed when they clinched the title and a spot in the Fifa tournament. "It's an honour for us to be in this competition playing against the best teams in the world," he said of the meeting of the world's continental champions. "We are all going to try our best for our country. It is going to be difficult because of the quality of the teams who are going to be here. It is a different level between us and them professionally but nothing is impossible."
Ali knows that his side are not in the same league as Inter Milan, the Italian and European champions, who will be favourites to succeed Barcelona by lifting the trophy at Zayed Sports City. "The chances are we won't meet them so we shouldn't worry about it," he said, mindful the Italian giants have a bye until the semi-finals whereas Ahli will have to win two games to reach that stage. "Our first opposition will be against one of the less strong teams in the opening round," he said regarding the curtain-raiser against Hekari United, the semi-professional Oceania representatives from Papua New Guinea.
"That will provide us with the opportunity to try to honour our country in the best possible way." Ali and his teammates go into the new season - which begins tonight with the Super Cup battle against Emirate, the President's Cup winners who are now in the second tier after being relegated last season - in buoyant mood. Their confidence has been given an enormous boost after a successful warm-up tour of Germany which produced four victories in five matches including the conquest of Hoffenheim, the Bundesliga club."That summer tour was a good test for us to see what level we are at and we worked very hard to be up to that test," Ali said.
"We feel we have reached a good level in the camp physically. We feel pretty strong and we are ready to start the job of retaining our title." Ali, 30, who has spent his career at Wahda, regards a successful defence of the Pro League championship to be as big a priority as the team giving a good account of themselves in the Club World Cup. "Everybody wants to be in the position of captaining a championship-winning team and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time," he said.
"I want to thank all my teammates for doing such a good job and making it possible because it was an honour for me to lift that trophy. "I hope that I can be lifting some more. We are working hard towards that objective." Ali has already established a strong captain's bond with Laszlo Boloni, Wahda's new coach, an experienced Romanian who knows how things work in the Emirates having been in charge of cross-city rivals Al Jazira in 2007.
The captain believes the coach, who replaced the Austrian Josef Hickersberger in the summer, will excel on his return to the capital. "Our coach is trying to put his new ideas across to the squad and it is working well so far," said Ali. "He is very strong on the field and has a good personality off the field. "Hopefully the whole package will lead to trophies in the next year." Ali will be able to commit totally to helping Boloni deliver the goods after seeing his international career brought to an end by Srecko Katanec, the UAE's Slovenian coach, last term a few caps short of the century landmark.
"I enjoyed playing more than 90 games for my country and was disappointed when I was omitted from the squad," he said. "The coach has his own opinion on players so I accept his decision. My plan is to concentrate on helping Al Wahda to win more trophies." firstname.lastname@example.org