Dubai: Rodolfo Arruabarrena, the Shabab Al Ahli coach, had warned his men to leave history where it is — “in the past” — and not think too much of their position as the most successful side in the history of the Arabian Gulf Cup when they bid to defend their title against city rivals Al Nasr at the Zabeel Stadium in Dubai tonight (kick-off 8pm).
Shabab Al Ahli have won the title once since the clubs were merged in 2017, but have won three times as Al Shabab, having clinched success in 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2016-17. Add to that their status as defending champions and Arruabarrena has had the added responsibility of having to keep his men firmly rooted to the cause at hand.
And the Argentine manager has done just that by passing the responsibility on to his players. “It’s the small things that are bound to make a big difference and the team that focuses on making sure all the little things are done perfectly will be the team that has a good result. If we can do that we will have a good result,” the 55-year-old said.
“It will decide what is looking to be a very difficult match. I just want my players to enjoy the game and play with responsibility. It is not easy to play two finals in a row and the second is always tougher when you have a title to defend.
“We are teams that have played each other many times in the past, but those results will not matter tomorrow. I spoke with my players about it and told them they have to focus throughout because finals are important moments. They are tough games, towards which you have to have a responsible attitude. It demands complete focus and the need to show heart and bring your best to the field.”
Arruabarrena’s opposite number Krunoslav Jurcic, the Al Nasr coach, echoed similar sentiments when speaking with his men after all both sides took very similar routes to the final and needed penalties for verdicts during their semi-finals on January 10.
Shabab Al Ahli drew 2-2 against Al Jazira, while Al Ain and Al Nasr had played out a 1-1. But as it stands with the proverbial slate wiped clean, Jurcic, who has been credited with leading an Al Nasr Renaissance of sorts, has a mantra for his men to follow.
“When the game starts tomorrow we will be strong from the start. We will go into the game to play hard, strong and be aggressive throughout,” said Jurcic, who was brought in after the sacking of Caio Zanardi in October.
“You need time to make something in football and since I came to the club three months back we started to do well. We are third on the table right now behind Shabab Al Ahli, who are leading and we are in a final so we will be putting all our energy into this game.
“We treat every game as a final, but this is actually a final. I am a big, big optimist and I am at a good moment in my career at the moment. I am very satisfied with the way our preparation has gone and we will enjoy it tomorrow.
“We had an idea and we have tried to make it work. We are playing against a team that we respect a lot, but it’s just that and we will be strong, hard and aggressive from the start.”
— The writer is a sports journalist based in the UAE