Henk ten Cate said he was “ashamed” of Al Jazira’s performance as the champions labuored to a 2-1 home victory against promoted Ajman on the opening night of the Arabian Gulf League.
There was not much to be proud about in the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s performance, with summer signing Romarinho netting on his debut 10 minutes from time to rescue three points his side barely deserved.
They were fortunate to gain all three after substitute Waleed Khalid had cancelled out Ali Mabkhout’s opener – and Ten Cate labeled it the “worst performance” since he took over in December 2015.
“It was horrible, awful, it was so bad. I was in agony on the bench seeing everything going wrong,” said an unhappy Dutchman, who said he was as much to blame as his players.
“The only good thing about the game was the three points. It was the worst performance since I’ve been here. To be honest I was ashamed of the performance.
“The opposition were very organised and of course they’re going to defend. We were lucky to win. We won’t be so lucky in the future.”
On-field temperatures peaked at 38 degrees at kick-off with humidity at 65 per cent as water breaks were schedule after 30-minute intervals – but Ten Cate failed to blame the weather, instead believing his players need to rediscover the hunger that brought them a first AGL title in six years last term.
He added: “I think it was the best wake-up call ever. We should realise when we don’t work hard and when we don’t challenge for the ball in midfield we are a very normal side.
“We are only a good side when everyone gives 100 per cent and I don’t feel the players gave 100 per cent today. We will lose games like this in the future if we don’t play without focus and concentration.”
They lit up the league on their way to the title last year, but Jazira failed to shine bright as they snuck past the promoted Orange Brigade.
Prolific Mabkhout hit a stunning 33 league goals that helped steer Jazira to a first title in six seasons in 2016/17, and the UAE forward opened his account for the new term after just 16 minutes to seemingly put his side on the road for a routine opening day victory.
Yet it was anything but straightforward for Ten Cate’s men against Ayman Elramady’s well-drilled Brigade who deservedly levelled when Khalid punished an atrocious Fares Juma mistake by sliding through Ali Khaseif’s legs six minutes after coming on.
Summer signing from now defunct Qatar Stars League side El Jaish, Romarinho – who had teed Mabkhout up for the opener – spared the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s blushes 10 minutes from time as he thrashed home a loose ball to earn the champions victory.
In stifling September heat it is harsh to judge last season’s runaway champions after one game, but they will need to adapt quickly if they are to defend the crown they lifted with an 11-point gap to runners-up Al Wasl.
They began brightly enough, Mbark Boussoufa’s free-kick almost headed into his own net by Brazilian attacker Adeilson, while captain Mohammad Yaqoob had to be alert to then cut out the Moroccan’s cross.
It wasn’t long before the deadlock was broken and its breaker even less of a surprise.
Romarinho doggedly chased down a long punt from defence and beat Hassan Zahran to it, before driving into the box and selflessly squaring to Mabkhout who bundled in.
Adeilson served notice of Ajman’s intent with a tame shot straight at Ali Khaseif. At the other end a bewildering run from brilliant youngster Khalfan Mubarak yielded a stinging shot that Ali Mohamed pawed behind, while intervention was also needed to stop Mabkhout connecting with Romarinho’s cute cut-back.
Ajman had the ball in the net on the stroke of half-time when Adeilson tucked in after Bakary Kone’s effort was stopped superbly by Khaseif – but Kone was rightly flagged for offside.
Jazira’s struggle to add to their tally instilled hope in the visitors with Adeilson letting fly from distance as the second half got underway, but Khaseif was behind it.
Summer arrival from Wasl, Hassan Zahran, then somehow got a foot to toe the ball behind to prevent Mabkhout a certain second – although the referee awarded a goal-kick.
Ajman had the ball in the net a second time just after the hour – and this time it counted – substitute Khalid finishing superbly to punish atrocious defending from Fares Juma.
Former Al Ain centre-back Juma tried a lazy flick and then played Khalid onside as he was slipped through on goal, the winger sliding the ball through Khaseif’s legs to deservedly level the scores.
Ten Cate threw former Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil on for his debut in search of a winner and Romarinho spared Juma and Jazira’s blushes when he blasted home a loose ball which deflected into his path from Mabkhout’s shot after Ajman failed to clear a free-kick.
Lassana Diarra revealed long-term friend Ibrahim Diaky convinced him to join Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira.
The 34-times capped French international left French giants Marseille in the summer and was officially unveiled as a Jazira player yesterday – along with fellow summer signings Ahmed Khalil, Sardor Rashidov, Romarinho and Mohammed Ali Ayed.
A deal for the former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Chelsea anchorman was concluded very early on and Diarra admitted speaking with veteran former Pride of Abu Dhabi midfielder Diaky – now at fierce rivals Al Ain – had persuaded him to try something new in the UAE.
“I have some friends here who have played here for a long time and we have been in contact for many years, I come here on holiday too with my family a lot so I think it was the right to say ‘OK, let’s do it’,” said Parisian Diarra, 32, who is of Malian descent.
“Diaky, he told me. We are friends. He is from the Ivory Coast, I am from Mali, we’ve been friends a long time, since 2008 or 09. I come here sometimes to watch his games and that’s how I had contact with the club. I think this year was the right time to move.
“I’ve been travelling around a lot, different countries. Today I’m at an age where I can decide what I want to do and see something else.”
Pocket dynamo Diarra has often been as explosive off the field as much as he is on it during his career – with Jazira his ninth club.
He had been with Ligue 1 royalty Marseille for the last two seasons but he denied testing out the AGL was a step down for him.
“No. It’s like you say, I am more closer to the end than the beginning so this is where my age can help the team,” he said, having signed a one-year deal at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
“Last season the team were champions and I think it’s a good challenge for me. I have to be realistic. At my age I wanted to do something else.
“I was in France, England, Spain, Russia and now I want to find something else for me, my family. Then we will see what I’m going to do at the end of the year.”
Henk ten Cate’s side begin the defence of their league crown – a first in six seasons – at home against promoted Ajman tomorrow, and Diarra insists he has come here to extend the club’s success rather than ease into retirement.
“I think it will be a tough game, especially as it is the first game of the season,” he added.
“Last year we were champions so the expectations are higher and everyone will want to beat us, so it will be a big game.
“I think the eyes will be on the team (rather than me), I’ll just try to bring my qualities that I have to the team. I just have to be normal and do my best. I will try to add to the team.
“Everything’s been very good since I got here. Now the league starts and I want to perform. It’s my first game in this league. I would like to feel the atmosphere and I’m ready to start. I want to win and I want to play.”
A grateful nation in need requires one last act of stellar service from Ismail Matar.
In the absence of waylaid 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, the timeless 117-cap veteran stepped into a void few of the faithful at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium believed could be filled during Tuesday’s night critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Saudi Arabia.
Defeat in just his second start of this lengthy campaign would have ended the dreams of the ‘Golden Generation’ he inspired, more than anyone else. Instead, and in typical fashion, the 34-year-old living legend orchestrated a clutch 2-1 triumph as playmaker which means another miracle act awaits in next week’s rousing third-and-final-round finale against eliminated Iraq.
A heavy win allied with a sizeable slice of good fortune will send the Whites on their way into next summer’s tournament in Russia.
With unstoppable Al Jazira front man Ali Mabkhout now joining the esteemed ‘Amoory’ on the sidelines for the defining Group B-clash in Amman, Matar’s role is to be amplified even further.
At an age when most footballers have just the comfort of club football to keep them busy, injuries and suspensions which have decimated the UAE’s ‘big three’ ensure the hero of the historic 2007 Gulf Cup-success on home soil is the main man once again – and after all these years.
Eyebrows were raised in Al Ain an hour before kick-off when the expected news of Abdulrahman’s absence was joined by the unexpected choice from Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza in his second math at the helm to plump for Matar as his replacement. The hands of time and rise of the ‘Golden Generation’ had made Matar an increasingly-peripheral presence.
Any dissenting – and ungrateful – voices were soon silenced as the Al Wahda icon slotted seamlessly into a new 4-3-1-2 formation which, belatedly, delivered a display of refined calibration.
The player who first shone when winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship was central to this success.
Unnerving accuracy and incisive vision was on show throughout his sterling 77 minute on the pitch. Whether unleashing striker Ahmed Khalil’s pace on the break with long balls or linking up with the likes of rampaging Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed in close quarters, the Saudis could not quell him.
His success while opposing attacking stalwart Taisir Al Jassim fruitlessly toiled was a key component of this success.
In Jordan, Matar will need to engineer a minimum swing of eight in goal difference for his country to stand any chance of advancement. But on this evidence, his powers to produce footballing drama remain intact.
In the Pantheon of UAE football greats, he is rivalled only by World Cup 1990 stars Khalid Ismail, Ali Thani and Adnan Al Talyani.
Provide the bullets on Tuesday for 16-goal joint-global top scorer Khalil and one of Middle East football’s finest careers will bequeath a priceless, potential, parting gift.