UAE foot­ball: the year in re­view

As 2016 comes to a close, John McAu­ley looks at the high­lights for the big clubs and the UAE na­tional team as a unit

The National - News - Sport - - LEADING OFF - jm­[email protected]­

A big thumbs up for Al Ahli, Al Ain, Al Jazira and the na­tional team in 2016.

Al Ahli wres­tle back ti­tle

Hav­ing sur­ren­dered meekly their Ara­bian Gulf League crown the pre­vi­ous sea­son, Al Ahli re­sponded in the best way pos­si­ble: by cap­tur­ing a sev­enth UAE cham­pi­onship. And they did it ahead of ri­vals Al Ain.

The Dubai club dis­played re­solve, re­cov­er­ing from Asian Cham­pi­ons League heartache, when they lost the fi­nal to China’s Guangzhou Ever­grande, and then re­bound­ing from the sea­son-end­ing in­jury to lead marks­man Ro­drigo Lima.

Cru­cially, record sign­ing Moussa Sow notched 13 times in the league and Ciel, who re­turned from his own ca­reer-threat­en­ing in­jury, scored vi­tal goals en route to the ti­tle.

How­ever, a cloud was cast over Ahli’s corona­tion with man­ager Cos­min Olaroiu un­happy and sug­gest­ing he was on his way out.

The hugely suc­cess­ful coach then made the ti­tle cel­e­bra­tion at the Rashid Sta­dium his own, ap­pear­ing as the last man out of the tun­nel. He was draped in the Ro­ma­nian flag. Some ar­rival.

Turn­around at Al Jazira

Ini­tially, few would have pre­dicted Henk ten Cate’s restora­tive in­flu­ence on Al Jazira. When the Dutch­man ar­rived days be­fore the New Year, the Abu Dhabi club were 10th in the ta­ble hav­ing dis­missed Abel Braga, the re­turn­ing Brazil­ian who guided his side to only three vic­to­ries from 16 matches. But Ten Cate came in and Jazira climbed out of their hole.

They fin­ished sev­enth – not great shakes for a club of their ca­pac­ity – but in May they out­lasted Al Ain on penal­ties in the fi­nal of the Pres­i­dent’s Cup to claim the tro­phy for a third time.

What is more, they have car­ried over that form into the 2016/17 sea­son, and cur­rently lead the Ara­bian Gulf League at the half­way stage on goal dif­fer­ence from Al Wasl. Much credit must go to Ten Cate, although he has been ably as­sisted by Ali Mabkhout’s fine 2016. The UAE striker struck 38 in a record-break­ing year per­son­ally.

Al Ain’s wait goes on

Thir­teen years and count­ing. Al Ain, the only UAE club to have won the Asian Cham­pi­ons League, were last month de­nied a re­peat of their 2003 suc­cess, de­feated 3-2 on ag­gre­gate in the fi­nal by South Korea’s Jeon­buk Hyundai Mo­tors.

It was par­tic­u­larly hard to take con­sid­er­ing this year felt like a golden op­por­tu­nity, given the strug­gles of the big-spend­ing Chi­nese sides.

Af­ter los­ing their first two group matches, Al Ain went on a su­perb run, built upon a re­mark­able away record.

In the fi­nal, they scored first in the open­ing leg in Jeonju, through Danilo Asprilla, but Leonardo’s dou­ble gave the hosts the ad­van­tage.

In the re­turn match, Al Ain con­ceded but quickly pulled one back. Then Dou­glas missed a penalty and the Gar­den City club missed out on the tro­phy. It was Al Ain’s third run­ner-up fin­ish in 2016.

So close again, although this one will hurt for some time.

Amoory Asia’s finest

Omar Ab­dul­rah­man may have fin­ished 2016 with­out any col­lec­tive sil­ver­ware with Al Ain, but he picked up some in­di­vid­ual honours, at least.

The Emi­rati was voted the con­ti­nent’s crown jewel, win­ning Asian player of the year at the con­fed­er­a­tion’s an­nual awards. Suit­ably, Abu Dhabi played host.

De­spite fail­ing to drag his team to Cham­pi­ons League suc­cess, Ab­dul­rah­man was un­doubt­edly the com­pe­ti­tion’s stand­out, as re­flected in eight man-of-the­match awards from 14 ap­pear­ances.

As Al Ain cap­tain, he led by ex­am­ple, although he dis­ap­pointed in the fi­nal, par­tic­u­larly the sec­ond leg. There, he al­lowed Dou­glas to take what proved a de­ci­sive penalty ahead of him, and had to watch as the Brazil­ian put the spot-kick over the bar. Do­mes­ti­cally, Ab­dul­rah­man led the 2015/16 Ara­bian Gulf League sea­son in assists, with 12, while re­gion­ally, he scored a Pa­nenka penalty against Barcelona in a friendly this month for Saudi Ara­bia’s Al Ahli. Not a bad way to sign off a stel­lar 12 months.

UAE shock Ja­pan

Ahmed Khalil scored twice – one a free kick, the other a Pa­nenka penalty – and the UAE recorded the great­est sin­gle re­sult in their his­tory.

Mahdi Ali’s men had de­feated Ja­pan in Saitama in Septem­ber, a 2-1 vic­tory to open their third and fi­nal stage of qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the 2018 World Cup with a fa­mous win.

There was brave de­fend­ing and a lit­tle luck, too, when the of­fi­cials failed to award the hosts an equaliser de­spite the ball clearly cross­ing the line.

Nev­er­the­less, the UAE’s quest to make a sec­ond World Cup be­gan with a bang.

Since then, the ig­no­min­ious de­feat to Saudi Ara­bia and the spec­u­la­tion re­gard­ing Mahdi Ali’s fu­ture has tainted the cam­paign, with the UAE sit­ting fourth in Group B at the half­way stage.

How­ever, Saitama 2016 should still be re­mem­bered as the night the na­tional team de­feated one of the con­ti­nent’s elite in their own back yard.

Caio Ju­nior mourned

The tragedy that dec­i­mated Chapecoense foot­ball club last month had an ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to the Emi­rates.

Among the 75 peo­ple that died af­ter a plane crashed on its way bound for Medellin, Colom­bia, was Caio Ju­nior, the for­mer Al Jazira and Al Shabab man­ager then in charge of the Brazil­ian side.

Chapecoense were trav­el­ling to com­pete in the fi­nal of the Copa Su­damer­i­cana.

Dur­ing his time in the UAE, Ju­nior guided Jazira to the 2012 Pres­i­dent’s Cup, while his two years at Shabab were high­lighted by suc­cess in the 2015 GCC Clubs Cham­pi­onship and a third-placed fin­ish in the 2014/15 Ara­bian Gulf League.

Tributes poured in for the Brazil­ian, 51, who was an in­cred­i­bly like­able man and supremely pas­sion­ate about foot­ball.

Both Jazira and Shabab held a minute’s si­lence be­fore their first match fol­low­ing the in­ci­dent.

Three oth­ers mem­bers of Ju­nior’s back­room staff at Shabab per­ished in the crash, too. In all, there were only six sur­vivors.

Saitama 2016 should still be re­mem­bered as the night the Emi­rates de­feated one of the con­ti­nent’s elite in their own back yard

AFP (2); Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

Clock­wise from top: UAE started their 2018 World Cup Asian fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing stage in style with a shock away win over Ja­pan in Saitama. Omar Ab­dul­rah­man’s wait for Asian Cham­pi­ons League glory with Al Ain was put on hold. Al Ahli took the do­mes­tic...

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