Al Jazira forward Ailton Almeida has launched a defence of coach Henk ten Cate after a severely-depleted side was predictably sunk in the 2017 AFC Champions League, insisting the Dutchman always “chooses what is best for the team”.
A starting XI stripped of eight regulars fell to a 1-0 home defeat against Iran’s Esteghlal Khuzestan on Monday night, courtesy of striker Aloys Nong’s second-minute volley. This approach has been met with widespread derision, following a second reversal in two matches which has placed hopes of progression from Group B in serious jeopardy.
Ten Cate’s repeatedly insisted post-match that protecting his side’s nine-point advantage in the Arabian Gulf League ahead of back-to-back clashes against holders Al Ahli and runners-up Al Ain was the appropriate choice. And this pragmatic viewpoint was backed by 32-year-old Almeida, who emphasised his trust in the seasoned supremo’s judgement.
“It is a decision of the coach, of course,” said the Brazilian, who has struck seven times in 22 games since a summer move from Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal. “He chooses the players to play.
“Of course, everyone can see he made a mix of the players who have not been playing much, while some who play all the time went on the bench. That is his choice.
“It is the coach’s choice and he chooses what is best for the team.”
Lifting a first AGL crown since 2010/11 has become the priority for the Pride of Abu Dhabi. A stern test of their credentials will come this Saturday in Dubai, with anything but a win for the hosts set to deliver a critical blow to their title defence.
“We didn’t have even one conversation about this [Ahli] game yet,” Almeida stated. “We were preparing just for this AFC Champions League game, here.
“Of course, we were very focused on the game. But sometimes, when you receive a goal within the first minute it transforms everything in the wrong way.
“We prepared for only this AFC Champions League game. We did not think about the other games.
“I mean, we want to win. We are giving everything to win.”
Jazira will now have to win at least three of the next four ACL fixtures to stand any realistic chance of progression, starting with March 14’s trip to Saudi Arabia’s Al Fateh.
Al Wahda’s prospects in the 2017 AFC Champions League appear bleak after two late goals from Persepolis centre forward Mehdi Taremi saw the hosts snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
A spectacular half-time introduction from club legend Ismail Matar looked to have turned this Group D-clash the Clarets’ way, following forward Vahid Amiri’s early close-range effort for the Persian Gulf Pro League’s pacesetters.
This goal caused a third member of the UAE’s faltering four-strong ACL contingent to concede within the first five minutes during the past two days.
In response, the former-mentioned 33-year-old expertly chipped in an equaliser and then deftly sparked the move from which enigmatic Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia lashed in to make it 2-1 just past the hour mark.
But with less than 10 minutes left, Jorge Aguirre’s suspect three-man defence – a formation not previously utilised by the Mexican – was exposed.
Iran target man Taremi first outjumped everyone to convert vice-captain Hossein Mahini’s lofted cross, before crucially slipping through a porous backline at the death to embarrassingly volley in Soroush Rafiei’s cute free-kick.
With two defeats from two matches and the daunting visit of Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal to come in a fortnight, a swift elimination upon the end of their six-year wait to feature in Asia’s elite club competition seems inevitable.
“After taking the lead we had two clear chances that could have killed the game,” Aguirre said. “We played better in the second half, but we fell flat in the last 10 minutes, perhaps, the players panicked.”
Taremi’s heroics made it a glorious return to Al Nahyan Stadium for coach Branko Ivankovic, who was sacked midway through a two-year deal in April 2013.
His current charges both lived up to their physical billing and proved why more than a third of Iran’s training squad in January was drawn from their ranks. A foothold in West Asia’s most-exacting section is just reward.
The Croatian said: “We are in a group of death and the three points are very important for us to keep our hopes of qualifying.”
Rodolfo Arruabarrena is not giving up hope of winning the Arabian Gulf League title, although he insists Al Wasl can’t afford another insipid performance like Friday’s 1-1 draw with relegation-threatened Ittihad Kalba.
The Cheetahs threatened to run away with the points early on as they peppered the visitors’ goal, but Goran Tufegdzic’s side grew into the game and arguably had enough chances to take all three points rather than the one the draw earned them.
Former Al Ahli striker Ciel was guilty of wasting two glorious chances at Zabeel Stadium, while a crucial last-ditch block by captain Waheed Ismail in the final minutes prevented Bakary Kone from netting a winner.
“There were moments I liked my team and moments I didn’t like my team. We made too many mistakes defensively,” said Arruabarrena bluntly.
“When we are playing these teams from the middle to the bottom we have to show why we are on the top, and today we didn’t show that.”
Although Wasl are unbeaten in their last five league games, the gap to runaway AGL leaders Al Jazira is 10 points. The Argentine though is not giving up hope of bringing a first league title to the Bur Dubai club in a decade.
“Yes, we still have hope that we can win the title,” said Arruabarrena, a former left-back who won six caps for La Albiceleste from 1994-2006.
“If you look at the points to play for you can see we still have a chance. I think that the goal difference to Al Jazira is too big, but there are some points to make up. The good thing is that we are close to the other teams. We have seven matches left so 21 points to play for.
“It is true Al Jazira is strong and have played well, so they have a big difference, but we have to carry on working. There are still lots of points for each team and some games against each other.”
Wasl travel to reigning champions Ahli, a point above them, and welcome Al Ain, who they are level on 40 points with, in April, and the 41-year-old ex-Boca Juniors coach is refusing to throw in the towel.
He said: “We have to work and I don’t say that it is over. After we will see at the end who will finish first, second, third and fourth.
“If we have the same problems we had in defence today again, it will be very difficult to win with that. We will have a rest then Sunday we start thinking about Bani Yas, which will be very difficult.”