Al Jazira should enjoy Real Madrid glamour but conquering Asia is true aim

Matt Jones - Editor 23:51 12/12/2017
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Win or lose on Wednesday night, Al Jazira must have grander ambitions than just being happy to be on the same pitch as the mighty Real Madrid.

After defeating newly-crowned Asia champions Urawa Red Diamonds 1-0 in the FIFA World Club Cup quarter-finals on Saturday, they have the attention of the continent, perhaps even the world for a night, with this dream semi-final.

They must now make use of the stage they occupy to join the Asian elite and become one of their heavyweights.

Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Qatar’s Al Sadd have all feasted on continental success, and have been joined at the West Asia top table by UAE clubs Al Ain (champions in 2003) and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club), who have shown aptitude on the continent in recent years.

All the while, we write about Jazira enjoying parity with this duo back home, labelling them a fellow giant of UAE football.

Yet during recent participation in the AFC Champions League, the Pride of Abu Dhabi were embarrassingly outclassed. They recorded a measly one point from six group games and held the joint worst record of all 32 teams along with Thailand’s Buriram United in 2016.

This season they fared little better, earning two points and still finishing bottom of their group – rising to be only the 31st worst team in the competition after Hong Kong’s Eastern Sports Club.

al-Jazira club

Even Al Wahda, seen as a smaller club next to their illustrious rivals in the capital city, have made a more meaningful impact on Asia.

The Clarets finished bottom of their group with four points this year but faced much tougher opposition in a group consisting of finalists Hilal, Persepolis and Al Rayyan – they still scored a group high 12 goals.

They were also semi-finalists as recently as 2007.

Jazira’s best showing in the competition, meanwhile, was exiting at the last 16 stage in both 2012 and 2014.
Those aforementioned group stage exits were something of an anomaly – coach Henk ten Cate has previously spoken of how an incredibly gifted young, but very raw, side were always going to struggle in the last two years.

This week, when addressing the subject of participating in next year’s competition, however, he was more optimistic.

The Dutchman has truly had the Midas touch since arriving at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in December 2015 to replace Abel Braga. He awoke a sleeping giant that had started flirting with relegation, and by season’s end had steered them to President’s Cup glory.

Twelve months on, his team hoisted the Arabian Gulf League title, a first in six years. And now, having already defied the odds to beat Asia’s finest in Urawa four days ago, his team face Europe, and indeed the world’s, finest.

Henk Ten Cate 2

This has all been achieved via Ten Cate bestowing chances on a plethora of talented academy players – chief among them Khalfan Mubarak and Mohamed Jamal.

This season Mohammed Al Attas, 20, and Eissa Al Otaibah, 19, have made their bows, and not looked out of place.

They’ve come a long way. And while the players, especially the local ones, should cherish their encounter with the Galacticos tonight – they must look at the bigger picture and target a deep run into the ACL next year.

For all he has done at the club so far, Ten Cate will leave a lasting legacy if he can take his troops one step further on the continent than domestic rivals Al Ain and Ahli have managed in recent attempts – both losing in finals (2015 and 2016).

Win or lose tonight, Al Jazira have everything to gain.

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