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.