Al Jazira ended a triumphant 2016/17 campaign with all the style, panache and ease that saw them saunter to just a second ever Arabian Gulf League title.
At this stage 12 months ago, Henk ten Cate’s mid-season rescue act saw him steer the Abu Dhabi giants away from the distinct possibility of relegation to the safety of seventh place after the much-heralded second coming of Abel Braga ended in ignominy.
Now, they are celebrating lifting just a second UAE title since football was introduced to the country way back in 1973/74.
The Abu Dhabi giants are among the three biggest clubs in the Emirates along with Al Ain and Al Ahli, but are just seventh in terms of most successful – the likes of Al Wasl (seven), Sharjah (five), Al Wahda (four) and Al Nasr and Al Shabab (both three) have all lifted more league championships.
Jazira have blown through eight coaches since Braga led them to their maiden triumph in 2010/11 – including Braga again – as they’ve obsessively searched for consistent success.
But it has taken a man with the pedigree of having coached Dutch giants Ajax and been assistant at European heavyweights Barcelona and Chelsea to earn a second crown, while Jazira’s triumph, perhaps more importantly, breaks a five-year monopoly on the trophy by the Boss and Red Knights.
Ten Cate has certainly restored pride to the Pride of Abu Dhabi – last year’s President’s Cup win also helps – and Jazira’s fans and hierarchy will no doubt have been pleased in recent weeks to hear the enigmatic Dutchman distance himself from replacing Danny Blind as Oranje head coach.
“We won the season in style and I’m really pleased with the way it went,” said the 62-year- old, who revealed post-match that he couldn’t be kept too long as the team were embarking on a night-time open-top bus of the city with the AGL trophy being paraded.
“We started a little nervously which was funny as we’d already won the championship, but we regrouped and scored some fantastic goals. It’s a different emotion for me. I was really excited after Hatta but we didn’t celebrate. We waited until tonight.”
Despite their dominance domestically this season, Ten Cate believes his team can still reach new heights.
“I think this team is maybe only at 80-85 per cent,” he added. “I think there is more for them to take. I hope it’s the beginning, not the end.”
The game was of course a formality. ‘Champions 2016/17’ banners adorned the stands, while red, white and black balloons were released as the two teams took to the pitch.
With Al Dhafra having nothing to play for and the title sewn up previously at Hatta, the hardest the home players had to work was when an avalanche of paper placards cascaded down upon them after Ali Mabkhout, who else, opened the scoring after 20 minutes.
Fares Juma’s header was parried by Abdulla Sultan, but only into the path of the lethal Mabkhout, whose strike was arguably the easiest of his 32 in 26 league games this season.
Khalfan Mubarak had a fine game and tapped in the second to add to his burgeoning reputation, while Mabkhout proved he can also provide too as he unselfishly teed up Mbark Boussoufa for a third on the stroke of half time which put the game to bed.
Mabkhout, fittingly, had the final say, setting the seal on a magnificent season both collectively and individually with a 33 rd goal in 26 games.
He has now scored 134 times in 222 league games for Jazira. Strikingly, though, he has 71 in 73 over the course of the last three seasons.
Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was raucous for a change, with 17,351 crammed in, comfortably the biggest attendance of the campaign.
The stadium was plunged into darkness upon the final whistle as the trophy was presented to a team that has shone far brighter than any of their opponents this season.
The challenge now will be to sustain that success. Nobody connected with Jazira will want to wait another six years for the third AGL crown.
Edgardo Bauza was convinced to take up the “personal challenge” of guiding the UAE after finding common ground with their Football Association, in contrast to his painful recent experience at Argentina.
Bauza, 59, has inked a two-year to reinvigorate the Whites’ faltering bid to make World Cup 2018 and guide them on home soil at the 2019 Asian Cup. This decision granted an instant return to management after he was dismissed by the Argentine Football Association’s new president Claudio Tapia last month because of a miserable eight-match spell, which sees the beaten World Cup 2014 finalists on the verge of missing next summer’s tournament.
His unveiling on Thursday night at the UAE Football Association’s headquarters in Al Khawaneej also marked the end of a sinuous process to find Mahdi Ali’s replacement, involving advanced talks with a number of other candidates as well as a previous rejected bid from El Paton.
“First of all, this is a personal challenge because we are all on the same track – the president and all the directors,” said Bauza. “We are not thinking about just the three games [remaining qualifiers on Road to Russia] in the coming months, we are thinking about a long-term period and long-term project.
“That is my main goal, to start work as soon as possible. We have an initial two-year project, but we think it is possible to pray for a longer term as everyone is thinking the same – coach and president.”
He added: “I had done some research about the team before coming here but I now have some more knowledge about the team after watching three games from the qualifying campaign. From this, I will start working and try and improve the situation.”
Bauza takes over a nation who are fourth with three games left in the third-and-final round of qualifying for World Cup 2018, one place and four points outside the advancement spots in Group B. A 2-0 defeat to Australia on March 28 saw Ali hand in his resignation, ending a transformational four-and-a-half-year tenure.
The new man has less than five weeks to prepare for his first qualifier, a must-win match at eliminated Thailand. He will debut in a friendly against Qatar in Doha on May 6.
After the fixture in Bangkok, they host Bert van Marwijk’s high-flying Saudi Arabia on August 31 and finish off against Iraq on September 5. They will likely need to take all nine points to stand any chance of success.
Bauza was fully aware of the dire straits his new team finds themselves in as they bid for a second-ever entry into the globe’s grandest football event.
He said: “Mathematically it is possible, but it is very difficult. For sure, we will try to win.
“The situation is difficult because it doesn’t depend on the UAE, it depends on other results.”
Bauza was given his marching orders by the AFA on April 11, less than two weeks after Tapia took the reins. He offered a pragmatic take on the abrupt end of his “beautiful experience” in charge of his nation.
“Having a new president [with Argentina], you know if you come from the old president [Armando Perez] you know you are finished,” said Paton
“It was a beautiful experience, Argentina. But it was finished and there were another five possibilities.
“I chose this one because of the challenge.”
The UAE FA first failed to lure fellow Argentine Alejandro Sabella early last month because of health reasons, while Cosmin Olaroiu preferred to wait for a European post if he is to leave Ahli. An initial $3.5 million annual package was then turned down by Bauza, before scheduling issues torpedoed a move for ex-Honduras and Ecuador tactician Reinaldo Rueda.
Bauza’s only experience of Middle Eastern football is a four-month spell at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in 2009.
He will add to this by watching Al Jazira’s title coronation in the Arabian Gulf League against Al Dhafra on Friday, before taking in next Friday’s President’s Cup final between Al Nasr and Al Wahda after a brief trip home.
Argentina legend Diego Maradona has declared he is “not afraid of the challenge” as he prepares to guide Fujairah back to the Arabian Gulf League, following his shock return to management.
Maradona, 56, stunned the world last Sunday when a one-year deal was announced with the Wolves for 2017/18. This means the iconic ex-Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli superstar will be in charge in First Division League, five years since he was sacked by top-flight Al Wasl.
“Yes, I’ll be coaching again,” he told FIFA.com from the organisation’s Congress in Bahrain. “I’ll work for Fujairah, which is located an hour away from Dubai.
“I liked the project and especially the team.
“Now it will be time to work with them and recharge the batteries.
“I’m not afraid of the challenge. It’s the opposite in fact, I am really excited.
“I cannot wait to meet the players and see how they train, how they eat, how they hit the ball.
“It’s a new challenge in a smaller league, although I’ll treat it like it was the best in the world.”
Fujairah finished fourth last term, two places and nine points away from the promotion spots. They enjoyed a two-year spell in the AGL from 2014-16.
Whites wait to reveal Bauza
The UAE Football Association are expected to announce a two-year deal on Thursday for recently-dismissed Argentina boss Edgardo Bauza to takeover the national team.
Bauza, 59, held extensive final talks with the organising body yesterday to succeed Mahdi Ali. He flew into Dubai late on Tuesday.
El Paton was sacked in April by La Albiceleste after just eight games.