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
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
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...