A semi-final of the UAE’s most coveted cup competition, contested between two of its most decorated clubs, one of which the reigning national champions and the other with more championships than the rest, provided quite the clash.

There were five goals. All came in a frantic and frenetic first half. The third was a genuine goal-of-the-season contender. There were multiple VAR referrals, such is modern-day football. There were spurned chances and choice words between opposition players.

And in the end, Al Ain had defeated Sharjah 3-2 to forge into the final. The Garden City club stand one match away from a record-equalling eighth President’s Cup, from sitting alongside their vanquished opponents. They reached a 15th showpiece in all, unparalleled in Emirati football.

It was just a shame there weren’t any fans in attendance to witness it. The Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium stood empty, bar the two teams and their respective employees. It had been decided as such last week.

The UAE were among the first countries to rule all competitive matches be played without the presence of supporters, a precautionary provision implemented by the Football Association to help lessen the impact of the coronavirus.

Yet it mattered little to Al Ain. They outlasted the eight-time President’s Cup winners to set up another tilt at the trophy next month.

Where, then, to start?

It took Al Ain two minutes to jump into the lead, once Balazs Dzsudzsak had just about beaten teammate Bauyrzhan Islamkhan to Jamal Maroof’s pull-back to bounce his finish past Adel Al Hosani in the Sharjah goal. VAR was consulted, but ruled Maroof had just about been onside when receiving the initial ball.

Within 10 minutes, the UAE champions were level. Luan Pereira peeled away on the left and crossed to Marcus Vinicius, who stepped inside his marker to drill a low shot beyond Khalid Essa. Soon after, Luan spurned a glorious chance himself.

“Glorious” could describe Islamkhan’s key contribution. The Kazakh midfielder, a winter signing from Kairat in his homeland, controlled a lofted pass, turned inside from the left and unleashed a thunderous effort from 30 yards. It flew into the Sharjah top corner. It was simply Islamkhan’s latest moment of magic.

True to form, the Kazakhstan captain played an integral role in putting Al Ain 3-1 up. On 38 minutes, he received Caio Canedo’s pass and forced a fine save from Al Hosani, but Canedo had continued his run. The Brazilian tapped in the rebound at the near post.

Moments later, Sharjah had pulled close again. Excellent work from the relentless Ryan Mendes teed up Caio Lucas, who made no mistake from 12 yards. The celebration was muted: signed in January on loan from Benfica, Caio spent three successful years at Al Ain before his transfer to Portugal.

If the first half was breathless, the second seesawed without swelling the scoresheet. Caio Canedo went close with a rasping shot from range, while Islamkhan skewed uncharacteristically wide and Al Hosani repelled Dzsudzsak late on.

At the other end, in the final minute, Caio Lucas’ effort was deflected inches over the Al Ain crossbar. In injury-time, substitute Omar Yaisien missed a golden opportunity to make safe the result. Pedro Emanuel, the Al Ain manager, could barely believe it; his bench also.

But Al Ain held on. They stood firm and stayed on course. Toward the final, toward the seizing another of the country’s most coveted cups.

Source: The National Sport