Henk ten Cate claims something is “terribly wrong” within his Al Jazira squad after the Arabian Gulf League champions lost 4-2 to 10-man Al Nasr.
The Dutchman apologised to fans who witnessed a timid and toothless performance at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Friday night. A game in which they were drawing 2-2 when the visitors, previously winless, saw Fawaz Awana sent off after 30 minutes, yet went on to score two more goals as they deservedly grabbed victory.
Former Ajax manager Ten Cate did not hide from criticism post-match, admitting full responsibility for the malaise being suffered by his team.
But the ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant lambasted his Al Jazira players for a “shameful” performance and warned his underperforming stars they are in danger of regressing back to the side that was flirting with relegation when he took over a little over 18 months ago.
“I would like to start with an apology to our fans for the shameful performance of our team,” said the 62-year-old – who led the rampant Pride of Abu Dhabi to a first AGL title in six seasons just four months ago.
“This has nothing to do with football. We didn’t work hard, we didn’t fight. We made a lot of silly mistakes, we didn’t concentrate. No marking, gave away so many passes to Al Nasr who were the better team, even with 10 players. I’m ashamed for this performance.”
Ten Cate turned the tide dramatically when he was called in to rescue Jazira from the shambolic grip of the previously celebrated Abel Braga – who led the club to their last title triumph in 2010/11.
Jazira were languishing in 13th place when he arrived in December 2015. He steered them to the safety of seventh and even ended the season with the President’s Cup after Jazira beat Al Ain on penalties.
Even better was to come last term as the capital city side lifted the league title, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
A stiff title defence was predicted after a fruitful summer recruitment drive that included the acquisitions of powerhouse UAE striker Ahmed Khalil from now defunct Al Ahli, tricky and pacey attackers Romarinho and Sardor Rashidov from equally redundant El Jaish as well as former Real Madrid midfield dynamo Lassan Diarra.
Despite the injection of talent, however, Ten Cate believes his side’s effort levels are nowhere near what they were when they had less quality.
“Something terribly wrong is in the team at the moment and you cannot compare this team to the one we had last year,” he said.
“Last year we had a real team, now we have 11 players who play their games and it’s just not good. Just quality is not enough. You need more.
“The determination Al Nasr was playing with, where they were fighting for every ball, playing for each other. They were playing like a team and we didn’t.
“There were 11 individuals in the field who have their own ideas. It’s just not a team. Football starts with hard work and if you don’t work you will never win games.
“Last year we were a team. I said from day one (last season) we don’t have the best players but we have the best team. Everyone was fighting and working for one another. And all of a sudden this is gone. People aren’t working or fighting for each other and this is something that needs to be fixed.
“I said in the pre-match press conference there is an adaption period between new and old players. It’s a small part of it but it is a lot of things. And also there are some things I don’t want to talk about. I cannot talk about this.”
Defeat was a second consecutive loss for the champions following a 1-0 reverse at the hands of Dibba Al Fujairah the previous week. Saturday’s 4-2 defeat was the first time Jazira had lost back to back AGL games under Ten Cate and was only an eighth league loss in 42 games since he took over.
The only consolation for Jazira in defeat was striker Ali Mabkhout’s tremendous feat. His equalising goal to make it 1-1 took him to 102 AGL goals – one more than former Al Ain start Asamoah Gyan netted and making him the league’s record goalscorer since the AGL turned professional in 2008/09.
And Ten Cate warned his charges they could risk featuring in a relegation rather than a title race this season unless they heed this latest wake-up call.
“If we continue like this there will be no race, there will only be a relegation race,” he said.
“Nothing is lost yet but if we continue we will be back where we were when I came in to pick up the pieces. This is a very loud wake-up call and it’s still buzzing in my ear.
“I am responsible for this and I am ashamed, and I hope my players have the same feeling I have, I hope they feel the same way I do, and then we can repair things.
“Of course I’m responsible for this performance and I will take full responsibility. And I want to keep defending my players but there comes a time when even I cannot do this anymore.
“I hope that this is a wake-up call for all of us. If we don’t change quickly then the team will end up back where we were a year and a half ago. Being champions means that you must not stop working. You have to work more, harder. You have to be more disciplined. And I am responsible for this, but sometimes there are things which are beyond a coaches’ reach.
“And even with all the experience I have sometimes it’s very difficult to put your finger on certain things which are going wrong. So one more time I’m very ashamed for the performance and I will offer my deepest apologies to all the fans. Tonight was not Al Jazira.”
In this week's episode of UAE Spotlight, Sport360 reporter Matt Jones takes a closer look at Al Jazira's 4-2 loss to 10-man Al Nasr in the AGL on Saturday.
Should Henk ten Cate be feeling the pressure already following Jazira's second consecutive defeat? Or is this just a brief lapse for the reigning champions?
Sound off in the comments section below and let us know your thoughts.
A pulsating six-goal thriller could be the catalyst that finally sparks the Cesare Prandelii era into life at Al Nasr, but the sheen has well and truly come off Al Jazira’s Arabian Gulf League title success.
It’s difficult to put a finger on what’s gone wrong in the four months that have passed since Jazira’s epic title triumph – Henk ten Cate’s side seemed like they were only going to get stronger after a strong summer recruitment drive that yielded former Real Madrid central midfield tyro Lassana Diarra.
The worrying thing for Pride of Abu Dhabi fans is that for the injection of quality Diarra, Sardor Rashidov, Romarinho and Ahmed Khalil was supposed to provide – the base hunger and desire that carried a youthful and perceived weak team to the title has evaporated.
Two of Nasr’s four goals at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last night came after Fawaz Awana’s dismissal – the former Bani Yas midfielder deservedly seeing yellow for a second time in 14 minutes after hacking down promising young Jazira full-back Salem Al Eedi.
That should have given the home side the impetus to push on and punish the visitors. Instead it was Prandelli’s men – led by an inspired Wanderley – that scored the next goal.
Jazira – despite having the best part of an hour to find a way to win – looked toothless and shorn of ideas, despite a wealth of creative, attacking talent at their disposal.
The one crumb of comfort for them was Ali Mabkhout’s initial equaliser – it was his 102nd AGL goal, making him the leading scorer in the professional era.
A breathless opening 45 minutes kicked into gear when Ali Khaseif watched helplessly as he parried Marcelo Cirino’s dangerous low cross only for it to cannon off Musallem Fayez, under pressure from Wanderley, and into the net.
The former Sharjah man then side-footed former Jazira playmaker Abdelaziz Barrada’s inch perfect cross against the bar as the Blue Wave cascaded forward.
That miss proved costly when Mabkhout calmly slotted in on 12 minutes following impressive youngster Salem Al Eedi’s insightful throughball.
Normal service then seemingly resumed when Fares Juma ghosted in to power Khalfan Mubarak’s corner in via a back post header.
But the visitors levelled less than a minute later when Wanderley lost Juma and assuredly beat Khaseif.
Then came Awana’s ill-timed tackle and dismissal – yet wonderful Wanderley put Nasr back in front when his powerful header from a free-kick was too hot to handle for Khaseif, who did well to tip it onto the post but the linesman deemed he did not prevent it from crossing the line.
Despite being a man to the good, Jazira looked toothless and clueless in attack as they struggled to capitalise on the extra man.
Romarinho and Rashidov – the latter introduced at the break – struggled to have an influence. But another replacement certainly didn’t. Little seemed on when a hopeful punt was sent up to Wanderley, but he patiently waited and then swept a low cross into the box and Fayez failed to spot the run of substitute Rashed Omer – on the field a mere 30 seconds – who swept home to make it 4-2.
The onslaught from Jazira failed to materialise. Mabkhout calmly collected a rebound after Ahmed Shambieh had parried Mbark Boussoufa’s stinging shot but somehow he put his effort wide when a goal would have made for a grandstand finish.
Instead, Jazira’s misery was compounded when substitute Al Otaiba was red carded in stoppage time for barging over another replacement, Jassim Yaqoob.