Henk ten Cate will be forced to continue to dip into the Al Jazira academy with the frustrated Dutchman claiming he has “absolutely no possibility” to freshen up his fatigued and injury-ravaged squad before tomorrow’s UAE transfer deadline.
Ten Cate looked anything but regal, cutting a forlorn figure at his press conference at Emirates Palace yesterday ahead of tomorrow’s rearranged Arabian Gulf League fixture against city rivals Al Wahda.
The Dutchman was uncharacteristically curt when quizzed about whether he would make any additions to his squad ahead of the deadline – with the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s players exhausted by a hectic festive period of football.
This included reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup against real Madrid, as well as six players being away with the UAE at the Gulf Cup in Kuwait. Jazira have played twice as many games as rivals since November 30, with tomorrow’s game their ninth in 39 days.
“I really don’t know. I don’t have a clue. This is one of our least problems, it’s the only thing I can say,” Ten Cate said about the possibility of arrivals at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
When asked if he would like to bring any more players in, Ten Cate laughed, before adding “no”. When pushed if that meant he was satisfied with his squad, he added: “Also no. Every coach wants the best players to work with. It should be possible and here in this club we have absolutely no possibilities.
“It is absolutely one of the reasons why I will depend more on the academy. It’s not that the players don’t have quality, but they are very young. They don’t have experience. They need time.
“If you look at Mohamed Al Attas, he’s dead. You cannot blame the young kids, he is working his socks off.
“It’s like driving a car and you have no gasoline anymore. You slowly will stop, so we have to be very careful with those young players, play them too much and they break down. So we have to be really careful, we are watching their progress and we will take decisions on the spot.”
French international and former Los Blancos midfield anchor Lassana Diarra was given a free transfer by the club last month, following a lackustre spell in the Emirates which included just five appearances since a summer switch from Marseille.
His exit leaves a spot in Jazira’s four-man foreign quota, although that could be filled by talented teenage Egyptian midfielder Abdalla Ramadan. The 19-year-old academy project is highly thought of at the club and made his senior debut off the substitute’s bench in the 4-1 loss to Mexico’s Pachuca in the Club World Cup third-place play-off on December 16.
The future of Uzbekistan winger Sardor Rashidov is also uncertain, having failed to convince since arriving in the summer alongside impressive Brazilian forward Romarinho from now defunct Qatari side El Jaish.
Despite leading the club to the President’s Cup and AGL titles in his first two seasons in Abu Dhabi, annoyed Ten Cate revealed his job is becoming “more difficult every day”, although he refuted suggestions from reports in the Egyptian press that he could be set for a move there.
Ten Cate, who’s original contract at Jazira was set to expire this summer, although it remains unclear if he has extended it, added: “I’ve had a lot of offers. No, I’m joking. I haven’t met with anyone, this is the honest truth. I have no verbal or written offers.
“I am concentrating on my work here which is hard and difficult enough, especially at this moment of time. It’s not getting easier, it’s getting more difficult every day.”
Indelible and unpredictable change highlighted a tumultuous year in the Arabian Gulf League that won’t swiftly be forgotten.
The very fabric of the sport in 2017 was torn apart as traditional names faced immediate extinction, unlikely upstarts broke a stranglehold on the division and omnipotent regimes fell.
Into this vacuum, new challengers broke through with startling alacrity. Beyond Al Jazira’s unlikely rise to just a second-ever top-flight title or heroically running European kings Real Madrid so close in a Club World Cup semi-final in Abu Dhabi for the ages, May’s merging of Al Ahli, Al Shabab and Dubai CSC was the defining event.
This was the manifestation of themes first witnessed in 2016 as oil prices remained low. In one edict, clubs with a combined 169 years of existence ended. A drop from 14 to 12 teams followed, rampant talk about further amalgamations not being realised.
Consumed by the dramatic switch of direction at Rashid Stadium, coach Cosmin Olaroiu departed earlier this month. The Romanian colossus had swept up 10 trophies in six triumphant years spent at Ahli and bitter rivals Al Ain.
A run of seven-successive draws saw club stalwart and ex-UAE tactician Mahdi Ali brought in, ostensibly through “mutual consent”. But a harrowing descent does not appear checked, coming force Al Wasl handing out a 3-0 debut defeat.
In contrast, success has been plentiful for Jazira. They have not been left untouched by institutional disorder, yet they rose from rank outsiders at season’s start to runaway AGL champions.
UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout’s 33 goals in 2016/17 smashed the mark set by Asamoah Gyan in his legendary spell at Al Ain, while the most points (68) and most wins (22) of the professional era were accrued. Their title defence has not run so smoothly.
Although, this was forgotten when, unfathomably, leading against Madrid for 53 minutes in a highly creditable 2-1 loss. Jazira’s previous 2010/11 title victory was also the last enjoyed by anyone outside Al Ain or Ahli. Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s enlivening Wasl may now deepen the cracks in this duopoly.
Playing with a vibrancy to match their bright yellow shirts, the UAE’s 20th century kings are enjoying a precipitous rise. Elsewhere, the impact of the Qatar crisis on 2018’s AFC Champions League adds intrigue.
An element of soap opera is provided by whether the rumours about a switch abroad for Omar Abdulrahman come to fruition and if the ineffable Diego Maradona can guide Fujairah to the top flight.
Overall, an image of decline exists. Both two-year runs of AFC Player of the Year wins (Ahmed Khalil and ‘Amoory’) and ACL final losses (Ahli and Al Ain) were snapped. A sense of surprise defined 2017.
UAE football aficionados can only hope positive shocks now follow.
Here, we take a look at the individual awards:
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
There is nowhere else to turn. Mabkhout was the driving force behind the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s title, outstripping a landmark by Gyan which looked set to stand for decades. His ruthless finish in the Club World Cup’s quarter-final against Urawa Red Diamonds set-up an epic clash with Real Madrid. As of writing, 44 goals have been scored in 46 club games.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Rodolfo Arruabarrena (Al Wasl)
What an impact. The affable and talented Argentine is a credit to the AGL. Let’s hope a new deal and trophies follow in 2018.
SIGNING OF THE YEAR
Makhete Diop (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club)
The Senegalese centre forward has escaped from time served at Al Dhafra with a flood of goals. Since his procurement in the winter transfer window, technically in late December 2016, an outstanding 28 goals in 39 games have followed – with one fixture to play. This is made more impressive by his new club’s travails.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Al Jazira 1-2 Real Madrid (December 13, 2017)
To stand on the pitch with Madrid, 12-time European champions and FIFA’s Club of the 20th Century, was a remarkable enough achievement. But to lead for 53 minutes and come within inches of doubling the advantage (Jazira had a second goal marginally ruled out for offside) made this UAE club football’s greatest night. Marshalled by Henk Ten Cate, the Pride of Abu Dhabi made a name for themselves – especially goalkeeper Ali Khaseif – across the globe.
TEAM OF THE YEAR
All-action forward Caio Canedo has revealed contract talks have begun with Arabian Gulf League pacesetters Al Wasl, as clubs from his native Brazil, Qatar, Italy and Spain eagerly await developments.
Canedo, 27, has proved an excellent addition since he was snapped up from Internacional – initially on loan, before a €1.4 million (Dh5.8m) permanent swoop – in September 2014. An impressive 46 goals in 80 top-flight run-outs have followed from the selfless star, helping propel the Cheetahs from a relegation-threatened rabble upon arrival to current title chasers.
Fellow attacking inspiration Fabio De Lima inked an extension from 2020 to 2022 last week. Discussions about a similar renewal for his compatriot are now under way.
“The talks have already started,” said Canedo in the wake of Friday’s 3-0 dismantling of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. “Fabio went in first, because his situation and my situation are a little bit different.
“We are walking forward in the same way, it depends on the administration.
“I always try to play football and let my agent [Giuseppe Dioguardi] do his job.
“There is speculations. There are lots of teams in Brazil interested, also a team in Qatar.
“Something showed up in Italy and Spain, too. I don’t want to think about it.
“I want to do a good season and for the administration to sit with me and finish this as quickly as possible.”
كل الأمنيات والدعوات بالتوفيق للمشجع الوصلاوي علي حسين البلوشي المشارك في بطولة الألعاب الآسيوية البارالمبية للشباب والمقامة في مدينة دبي 💛 pic.twitter.com/L1TrKhd2I9
— Al Wasl SC (@AlWaslSC) December 11, 2017
Canedo and De Lima have elevated their employers to new levels since they both joined in the build-up to 2014/15. A pair of sixth-placed finishes followed under coach Gabriel Calderon, before another Argentine in Rodolfo Arruabarrena sparked a remarkable rise to second last term and put them joint top with Al Ain at the winter break.
No trophies have followed in this time, the closest being runs in the last two seasons to the semi-finals of the Arabian Gulf Cup. This is a situation Canedo is determined to change.
He said: “I really want to win something with Al Wasl. Myself and Fabio have been here for four seasons and we want to win something, putting our photo on their wall.”
Canedo was not able to add to his seven-goal haul in his 11th AGL display of the season, against ramshackle Shabab Al Ahli. But he drew fouls for De Lima and Anthony Caceres’ stunning free-kicks, robbing the ball off dawdling centre-back Walid Abbas to allow Ronaldo Mendes to slot in the second.
“The feeling is great,” he said. “I wish I had scored and it would be even better.
“I am joking, of course. Since we drew two games against smaller teams, Hatta and Ajman, we came into this game with a little bit of pressure.
“Finishing the first leg at the top means a lot. Our team was prepared for this since the first game.
“We continue to think that we have everything to be champions. We want to make history, man.
“This was our 26th game, straight, we didn’t lose [in all competitions]. We are breaking records after records.
“Hopefully, we can continue like this.”
Wasl sit top of the AG Cup’s Group B and next play Al Wahda in it on Thursday.