Henk Ten Cate believes defeat to Al Wahda saw Al Jazira relinquish their Arabian Gulf League title, as Sebastian Tagliabue moved into third place on the all-time top scorers’ list in the professional era.
A 4-2 defeat in an entertaining spectacle at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Monday night saw a seven-point gap opened up between reigning champions Jazira, in fifth, and Laurentiu Reghecampf’s Clarets, who consolidated their grip on third and went two points behind joint leaders Al Ain and Al Wasl.
And Ten Cate bluntly replied “yes” when asked if he thought the title race was over for the Pride of Abu Dhabi following a third defeat of the season.
“The difference is nine points and means you have to get one more point than your opponent. It’s almost impossible and we have to be realistic,” said Ten Cate, who added that despite possessing an injury-ravaged and fatigued squad, insisted there’s reason for optimism.
“There’s a lot to win. We play in the Super Cup on January 20 and we will be there.”
Capital city rivals Jazira and Wahda will clash again at Bani Yas Stadium in 10 days’ time in the Arabian Gulf Super Cup as the delayed spectacle between league champions Jazira and President’s Cup winners Wahda finally goes ahead.
After a packed month of football which has included reaching the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup, where they pushed European and Spanish champions Real Madrid all the way before losing 2-1, Ten Cate fears his mentally and physically drained squad – Ali Mabkhout’s participation in defeat was his 11th match in a little over a month – are in “deep trouble”.
“Our team is in such a state that after the disappointment we can’t come back again,” added the Dutchman.
“This was the result that I was waiting for a long time. The players are not to blame. They staff are not to blame. We did an amazing job together but there comes a moment in time that it’s finished and that was today.
“This was a very big wake-up call and I hope everybody wakes up. It’s very difficult to speak about football in a situation that we’re in.
“It’s a mental reason. It’s not to do with technique. It’s difficult for me as coach to motivate the players and difficult for the players to motivate themselves. This is how it is.
“This isn’t to justify the defeat. This defeat was going to come one day or another. It could’ve been against Ajman or Hatta or whoever. But we are in a bad situation. It’s the mental state of the players which isn’t good. Right now, we’re in deep trouble. There’s no more willpower.
“The team doesn’t have the mental state to bounce back. Due to different circumstances which is beyond our control.”
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