Wait is over for Al Jazira

Abu Dhabi club thrash Hatta to be crowned Ara­bian Gulf League cham­pi­ons for first time since 2011.

The National - News - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - jm­cauley@then­ational.ae

Im­proved de­fence

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.

Mabkhout’s in­stinct

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.

Big-game record

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.

Ri­vals’ dis­trac­tions

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

Has­san Al­raisi / Aleti­had

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.

Has­san Al­raisi / Aleti­had

Play­ers pa­raded the league shield in Ham­dan bin Rashid Sta­dium at the fin­ish.

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