Henk ten Cate got what he wished for. Following Ah Ahli’s 2-1 win against Al Wahda on Saturday night, Al Jazira have the chance to lift the Arabian Gulf League title on their own terms when they face Hatta at the end of the month.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi could have become AGL champions had Ahli failed to beat Abu Dhabi rivals Wahda in the capital, 24 hours after they had trounced Al Shabab 3-0.
And Balazs Dzsudzsak’s equaliser with 15 minutes to go meant it was heading that way, until Everton Ribeiro’s late winner.
Most coaches may have wished for the title to have been won at the earliest opportunity. But not Ten Cate. With the way his team have performed this season, he feels they deserve to win the title their own way, without help from anyone else.
“I think we should do it on our own terms and the players deserve a nice match and a celebration, in an official match where you get the championship,” the Dutchman said after his side cruised to a 19th win in 23 league games on Friday night and took one more step towards lkifting a first AGL title since 2010/11.
“To be honest I would not like to be a champion tomorrow (Saturday). I hope a lot of fans will travel with us to Hatta, I hope the club arranges something for the fans to celebrate with us.
“This is what this team deserves, not to become a champion anonymously, the next day, when you have played already. You hear at night Ahli did not win so you are champion.
“This is something we have to do together, to celebrate together. I hope we win in a real game. Maybe the players think differently but this is my desire.”
Although Jazira still have to get across the finish line, with a point likely to be and a win definitely good enough from their remaining three matches, Ten Cate is already looking to the future, and improving his squad.
It is a small squad that Ten Cate deemed not large enough or possessing enough quality to launch a sustained bid for AFC Champions League success, which is why he has prioritised the league in recent months.
But success on the continent is something he will take more seriously next year.
“I’m thinking, in the near future, is the next game, which will be Lekhwiya but of course we have conversations about how to improve the team, to get better, to get better players, which is very important,” added Ten Cate, the former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant.
“Of course we can do better and we have to improve our squad next year. This is something we are talking about. We play with a lot of players from our academy and not so many teams can do this.
“If you win the championship, we will play in the Champions League again and the Club World Cup. We have a figure and we want to show the world what we are capable of but we need more than we have this year.
“People are working on it but we have to wait and see. I can only give suggestions, they will think about it and if it’s possible we will maybe do it, but this is not up to me, it’s up to the club.”
Cosmin Olaroiu claims he is “200 per cent” committed to Al Ahli in the face of continued speculation surrounding his future.
The 47-year-old was not named on a four-man shortlist for the vacant UAE coaching job on Wednesday, having initially ruled himself out of the running to replace Mahdi Ali, while he has also been linked with taking over his native Romania.
Olaroiu’s contract with the Red Knights expires next year and he insists he is focused on the fight to retain their Arabian Gulf League crown, ?? which could be surrendered as early as today if they fail to beat Al Wahda following Al Jazira’s ?-? win against Al Shabab last night. ??
“I think I’ve already left Al Ahli for two teams having completed negotiations with clubs in the region judging by the rumours that go out every day,” Olaroiu said, tongue in cheek, at his pre-match press conference on Thursday.
“I am currently located in Al Ahli, where I have lasted for a long time, I am with my Al Ahli family and I plan to win and give 200 per cent under all circumstances.
“I have a commitment to the players and the team to offer everything I have and I also have an obligation to the fans to give all I have.”
Olaroiu confirmed former Al Ain striker Asamoah Gyan is unavailable for the trip to Abu Dhabi today through injury, while he also speculated that UAE striker Ahmed Khalil could miss out after picking up a slight injury in Tuesday’s 3-1 win at Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawon in the AFC Champions League.
Red Knights centre back Mohammed Jaber has “demanded” 12 points from his team-mates from Ahli’s final four league games if they are to stand any hope of retaining their AGL crown.
“We have to reap 12 points from the rest of the league games,” said the ex-Bani Yas defender.
“It will certainly be a tough match, but we are demanding we win every game we play. The season is not over yet and we have to win all four games and wait for the outcome of the rest of the games. We compete for the league until the last moment.”
Ahli face a tricky trip to the capital today, with the Clarets on a run of four straight league wins.
Javier Aguirre revealed he will rotate his team with an eye on next Wednesday’s crucial President’s Cup semi-final tie against Sharjah, although he added his team will fight for victory against today’s visitors to Al Nahyan stadium without the thought of looking to do their cross-town rivals Jazira a favour by beating Ahli.
“I will give some players rest in order to equip them well for the important match in the semi-finals of the President’s Cup against Sharjah on Wednesday,” said the Mexican.
“This will lead to some modifications to the squad that played against Al Hilal in the AFC Champions League (on Monday).
“Over the past few weeks in various competitions we have rotated between different players, according to the absences facing the team, whether injuries or suspensions, which have given the opportunity for all players to participate.”
And the former Atletico Madrid chief is keen to maintain his side’s good league run going, adding: “We seek to win after four consecutive league victories, and I am focused on my team without looking at the possibility of resolving the league title for the benefit of Al Jazira.
“The league title is not settled through 90 minutes, it is a product of work throughout the season.”
The wait is nearly over. Just one more win will deliver Al Jazira a first Arabian Gulf League title in six years – and surprisingly just a second one ever.
Al Shabab were dispatched with consummate ease last night, the hosts 2-0 up and effectively the result settled inside the opening 10 minutes after goals from Ali Mabkhout – incredibly his 28th in 22 games – and Fares Juma.
Although Jazira’s attendances rarely do justice to the 42,056 capacity Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, there was a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium at kick-off, with the fans in attendance in the mood to party.
And why not? Jazira could be confirmed as champions as early as today, should reigning AGL champions Al Ahli fail to win at Al Wahda. Failing that, victory at already safe Hatta in just over two weeks’ time would bring them a title they last lifted under Abel Braga in 2010/11.
The Brazilian veteran was brought back last season to finally end Ahli and Al Ain’s five-year monopoly on the championship, but the former messiah will instead be remembered for dragging the Abu Dhabi giants into a mess in which relegation was at one stage a very real threat.
Experienced Henk ten Cate replaced him and Jazira have never looked back. The Dutchman steadied the ship and steered them to the safety of seventh.
The President’s Cup was even lifted after a penalty shootout victory over Al Ain. But it is with Jazira now standing on the cusp of AGL glory that the Dutchman’s brilliance should truly be saluted.
“We are almost there. One more point from three games and we will be champions,” said the former Ajax boss.
“Al Jazira has no secret. We work very hard during the day, and during the game. We have a very solid defence, who have only conceded two at home, and we score easy goals.”
Shabab coach Miroslav Dukic said his side were beaten by the UAE’s best team.
“Today we play the best team in the league and it’s difficult to be competitive,” said the Serbian. “We have to stay very strong defensively and if you concede a goal in the second minute it’s very difficult to come back from this situation.”
Strange things can happen in the twilight of championship-chasing campaigns but there was never a hint of anxiety inside the stadium that Shabab would provide a potential banana skin.
Any nerves were quickly dispelled as Mabkhout put his side ahead in the third minute. There was no danger when skipper Mohammed Marzooq failed to spot the lurking Mabkhout as he sent a backpass to Salem Abdulla, and the league’s best striker finished with aplomb.
Six minutes later it was 2-0. Khalfan Mubarak won and then swung in a corner which Fares Juma glanced in through a crowd of players.
That’s when the chanting and the beating of the crowd’s drums started getting into full swing while Shabab got that familiar, sinking feeling – since November 25 they have tasted victory just once in 15 AGL games.
Jazira made the game safe with 21 minutes remaining, Leonardo sent in a delivery that forced Mahmoud Qassim to stick out a leg and put past Abdulla with Mabkhout in attendance.
So now it’s over to Ahli, although victory against Wahda will surely only delay the inevitable. Jazira have put the pride back in Pride of Abu Dhabi and will be worthy champions.