Wait is over for Al Jazira
Abu Dhabi club thrash Hatta to be crowned Arabian Gulf League champions for first time since 2011.
Prior to this season, Jazira’s Achilles heel had been their porous backline. In the two previous campaigns they conceded 46 and 50 goals, respectively, the most in the league each year bar its relegated teams.
Yet they have been miserly this time, conceding 15 times (twice at home) – the best in the division. While summer signing Juan Carlos has hardly been without fault, the sterner defence has come about through a mixture of hard work, a sturdier structure throughout the team, greater belief and, granted, some luck along the way. Midfielder Mohammed Jamal has certainly offered more protection, and Mohammed Fawzi’s arrival has been important.
Plus, in Ali Kasheif, Jazira possess one of the league’s outstanding goalkeepers.
Strong team spirit
It has become a familiar sight: Jazira’s players huddled together before a match or afterwards, with forearms raised and hands clasped together.
At first it seemed a little excessive, but in reality it represents perceptible proof of the team spirit fostered by manager Henk ten Cate and his staff. The Dutchman places heavy emphasis on the collective, forever speaking publicly of his pride in his side.
To their credit, the players have obviously bought into that.
Again, the role of Kasheif, captain and regular sounding board among teammates, and striker Ali Mabkhout should not be underestimated.
The foreign players, too, especially Mbark Boussoufa of Morocco and Leonardo of Brazil, have brought a professionalism and work ethic.
Easily the most prolific Emirati of the professional era, the Jazira forward has improved upon his 23 goals last season – a pro-era record – by scoring 31 times this season.
Where he trailed only Sebastian Tagliabue in the charts back then, Mabkhout now stands alone as the league’s master marksman.
Bizarrely, the UAE international has not been at his very best in terms of performance, but his eye for goal has remained.
Admittedly, he has an able support cast to supply the ammunition or chip in with goals themselves, with Boussoufa and Ailton Almeida operating behind Mabkhout with relish, and Leonardo, the division’s marquee winter signing, proving an astute recruit.
Talented young players
A hugely commendable aspect of Ten Cate’s coaching has been his willingness to place his trust in youth.
Jazira’s match-day squads can contain five or more players aged 22 and under, with midfielders Jamal and Khalfan Mubarak regulars.
Being handed the opportunity to learn first-hand the rigours of the UAE top flight has undeniably helped expedite their players’ development.
Ten Cate is on record saying he expected Jazira to finish fourth or fifth this season, given the inexperience in his squad.
His faith, coupled with the players’ talent and temperament, should be applauded.
To offset that, of course, the club needed to clear out the deadwood, such as ageing defender Basheer Saeed.
Even despite last season’s troubles, when the side flirted with relegation and required a change of manager, Jazira are considered a member of the league’s “Big Three”.
As the table began to take shape, it became increasingly clear that matches between Jazira, Ahli and Al Ain would decide the title.
Crucially, in their four meetings with those two clubs, Jazira took nine points, winning three of those encounters.
January’s 3-1 victory at Al Ain, then perceived to be their main rival in the title chase, arrived at what felt like a critical stage of the season.
It came in the middle of an eight-match winning streak in the league. For the majority, Jazira stepped up when they needed.
It has been a testing season at Ahli and Al Ain, two clubs who for the past five years have dominated UAE football.
Ahli, the 2015/16 champions, have been beset by problems off the pitch, while a series of injuries to key men has taken its toll.
Since January they have been able to call upon only three foreigners.
Al Ain, meanwhile, were understandably distracted by their run to November’s Asian Champions League final that caused a backlog of matches that eventually proved too arduous.
It allowed Jazira to build a healthy lead, with the club choosing from February to forego the Champions League and prioritise the league.
Jazira deserve the trophy, no doubt, yet this season was the ideal time to strike.
A hugely commendable aspect of Ten Cate’s coaching has been his willingness to place his trust in youth
Al Jazira, in red, delivered the knockout blow to the league with a 5-0 win over Hatta last night to claim the AGL title for the 2016/17 season.
Players paraded the league shield in Hamdan bin Rashid Stadium at the finish.