Hughes on a mission to fulfil hosts' big dream

City have failed to capture the imagination of the locals - most people here don’t know who they are - but their manager is fully aware of the ambitions of the club’s Emirati owners
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it was not so much the sight of Mark Hughes explaining the finer points of his side's training session to a group of Arabs in flowing traditional thobes which caught the eye here last night, as the seating laid out for a few of the dignitaries to view the whole business. Two dining chairs and a table laid out with starched linen cloth were positioned on the touchline of the pitch where Robinho, Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy raced around under brilliant floodlights in the warmth of the evening, amid the manicured grounds of the seven-star Emirates Palace hotel.

This spectacle and the pitch on which it was unfolding seemed to say everything about the way this fledgling emiracy goes about creating whatever is its mind's desire. A year or so ago, when this pitch was a sand dune, Abu Dhabi's links to Premier League football were limited to the many here who are utterly obsessed with playing fantasy football in the newspapers. Now the pitch is part of the emiracy's preparations for next month's Club World Cup – the tournament referees will train on it – and the players out there, with two of Abu Dhabi's latest glass sky scrapers half completed on the skyline behind them, belong to perhaps the most exciting new prospect in world club football. They'll soon realise that dining tables don't come into the picture.

That is Abu Dhabi for you. The place is still so barely populated that its many wide walkways are empty but when they decide they want Formula One racing, they build the most extraordinary piece of architecture in the sport at Yas Marina, inside two years. They believe they will have created the footballing equivalent one day, too.

It was the scale on which the Abu Dhabis want to succeed, which Hughes reflected on yesterday as he stood among the palm trees and pools of the Emirates Palace gardens. "I've been here many times and it doesn't stop you being amazed by the scale of it," he said. "Every time you come here you are astounded by that. We understand that this is a young nation and they are trying to build their nation with iconic buildings." For a club who have been icons of suffering for so long, asking City to form part of this Gulf culture seemed perverse when the Abu Dhabis bought the club. In Hughes they have a manager who has sought a "winning mentality" above all, but the task of achieving quick success in Manchester is still not proving quite so straightforward as building a race track. "It's a long process and we need that time," reflected Pablo Zabaleta, one of the back four whose frailities have contributed to City's stuttering form of late. "We are building a new team and that's not easy for anyone to do. Manchester City players know that this has been a time of important change and it's time to have a new mentality if we want to be successful."

The road towards City being the local adoptive club of this place will be a long one, judging by the obligatory straw poll of tax drivers. "The Argentinian...? What is his name," said the driver who whirled past Abu Dhabi's $22m Sheikh Zayed cricket stadium – another example of the ability to build from nothing in the desert.

Emmanuel Adebayor seems to be the biggest City name around but there is certainly no sign that the Manchester United shirts you see from Timperley to Timbuktu have been replaced by sky blue here. United are the side who feature in the local papers, too. The only mention of City yesterday was in a Gulf Daily News promotion for articles on its website. This, in an emiracy where 92 per cent of the population list football as their favourite sport, according to one survey.

All that, though, appears to be of no preoccupation to Sheikh Mansour al bin Nahyad, who will be present at his first City game when the club take on a UAE invitation XI here tomorrow night. While Yas Marina and the Club World Club bid are government enterprises, undertaken to build Abu Dhabi's global profile and reap rich revenues in tourism, the purchase of City was always something quite different.

The club was purchased by one man with a keen interest in football and an eye on the commercial opportunity it represented. There was "low hanging fruit" commercially, one source said, who presumably meant deals such as the lucrative one City announced yesterday with the Arab mobile telephone company Etisalat. To suggest there was ever a grand plan about making City the emiracy's adoptive Premier League team is simply "over-complicating it", according to one who knows Sheikh Mansour.

The belief that City will become a global sporting entity one day is built on pride about the corporate prowess here. There is mild indignation, incidentally, at the suggestion that Abu Dhabi wealth just comes flowing, on tap, from the oil fields. The emiracy produces 2.7m barrels of oil a day, a figure almost comparable with Britain's 1.7m, even though there is a mere 1.6m population to serve.

Of course, that hard commercial edge the place has will mean Hughes adhering to the agreement he and chairman Khaldoon Mubarek came to before this season that City will attain sixth place at least in the League. The manager, whose team have drawn five Premier League games in succession, knows that. He would have found the 28C temperatures as agreeable last night as supper inside the Emirates Palace hotel and there was a warm handshake with Khaldoon before the two men parted. But he knows a bit about Abu Dhabi expectation by now.

"There are comparisons to be made between the building that's going on here and the building we are trying to do at City," said Hughes. "We are trying to develop and go in the right direction and this country is striding very, very quickly in the right direction. We, as a club, want to match that."

Bridging the Gulf: UAE lowdown

* Joined Fifa in 1972 and are currently ranked 115th, having been as high as 42nd in 1998

* Made one World Cup appearance, at Italia 90. Lost every match, scoring just twice and conceding 11 goals.

* Won 2007 Gulf Cup of Nations, beating Oman 1-0 in the final. It is the UAE's only major piece of silverware.

* Coach Srecko Katanec, a Yugoslavian, won the European Cup Winners' Cup as a player with Sampdoria in 1990.

* Tomorrow's match will be played at their home ground – the 49,500-capacity Zayed Sport City Stadium, named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and first president of the UAE.