Arabian Gulf Cup’s call grows louder for league stragglers

Call-ups for international tournaments open door for smaller clubs with big ambitions
Ali Mabkhout, left, of Al Jazira jostles with an Al Shabab defender during their Arabian Gulf League match at Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on December 14, 2014. Ashraf Al Amra / Al Ittihad
Ali Mabkhout, left, of Al Jazira jostles with an Al Shabab defender during their Arabian Gulf League match at Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on December 14, 2014. Ashraf Al Amra / Al Ittihad

This is the time of year when several domestic sides realise they harbour some affection for the Arabian Gulf Cup, after all.

Rare is the club who, before the season begins, identify the nation’s No 3 domestic prize as a goal. But with half the Arabian Gulf League season complete, the six sides with little or no hope of finishing in the Asian Champions League places, never mind winning the championship, begin to shift their focus.

Emirates, Al Dhafra, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ajman and Kalba appear out of the league race, but Ajman and Kalba are still alive in Group A of the Cup, and Sharjah and Dhafra top the table in Group B.

The first- and second-place teams in each group, at the end of the round-robin play, advance to the semi-finals.

It was two years ago that one of the smaller clubs, Ajman, showed their pursuit of the Cup was not in vain: they beat Al Jazira 2-1 in the final to secure their first domestic top-flight trophy.

The Arabian Gulf Cup also is interesting in that the smaller clubs are rarely hit by the loss of key players to international competition, as are the bigger clubs.

Al Ahli, defending Cup champions, have contributed eight Emirati players to Mahdi Ali’s national team, who are preparing for the Asian Cup in Australia.

Al Ain also have been hit hard: they have seven players in Australia and also will play their final three Cup matches without Asamoah Gyan, the league’s leading scorer for three seasons, who will lead Ghana in their pursuit of the African Cup of Nations, beginning on January 17.

Jazira have two players in Australia, including the league’s leading Emirati scorer, Ali Mabkhout. Baniyas are without midfielders Amer Abdulrahman and Haboush Saleh, Al Wahda minus defender Hamdan Al Kamali and forward Salem Saleh.

Some of the more prominent sides likely will rest some of their leading expatriate players, as well.

Only goalkeeper Mohammed Yousef of Sharjah is missing from the squads of the six clubs at the bottom of the AGL table.

A key match on Tuesday finds Ajman home to Al Nasr. The Dubai club are level with Al Shabab at the top of Group A, with a game in hand, and can all but secure a semi-final berth with a win at the Rashid bin Saeed Stadium.

Shabab could also become nearly unassailable if they win at home on Tuesday against the weakened Al Ain.

On Wednesday, Group B leaders Sharjah and Dhafra meet, with the Western Region club making the drive from Abu Dhabi. Baniyas and Ahli also meet, and if both games produce a winner one of the latter duo will move into second place in the group.

Several clubs have little to play for, including league leaders Jazira, who have only three points from four matches, and second-place Al Ain, who have no points after three matches. The league’s fourth-place team, Wahda, also are nearly out of contention, with a pair of draws after three matches in Group B.

Group play will wrap up quickly. Round 6 is set for January 4-5 and Round 7 for January 9-10, completing group play.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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