Sebastian Tagliabue cites fresh blood for turn in Al Wahda’s AGL fortunes

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Tagliabue is Wahda's talisman.

A rousing speech and injection of youth from boss Sami Al Jaber which followed a devastating defeat to Fujairah salvaged Al Wahda’s wayward season, according to star striker Sebastian Tagliabue.

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Al Jaber, 42, floundered in the initial weeks after Jose Peseiro’s controversial February dismissal.

A team that had been a fixture in the top three all season on the back of a 20-match Arabian Gulf League-unbeaten run stumbled to four losses in the Saudi Arabia legend’s opening six games.

Their prospects of qualifying for Asia’s premier club competition seemed over when they collapsed to a dispiriting 1-0 loss at lowly Fujairah on April 3, but in the aftermath came renewed belief.

Al Jaber provided fresh direction, two wins and Monday’s goalless draw with Al Ain following.

“We are playing much better,” said 12-goal top scorer Tagliabue, ahead of Friday’s trip to Al Ahli.

“The coach told us to believe in our football and play our football and do not care about anything else. After the Fujairah game [a 1-0 defeat on April 3], we have changed completely.”

At the vanguard has been a number of young stars. Old hands such as Tawfeeq Al Hosani and Adil Abdulla have dropped out, fresh-faced defensive midfielder Mohammad Al Abdulla and full-back Ahmed Rashid coming to the forefront.

“The introduction of the younger players has been very good for us,” Tagliabue said.

“We needed new players to renew the group.” Wahda still have it all to do in the final two rounds to secure a top-three finish and its guarantee of ACL participation. Stay in fourth and they could lose their spot to the President’s Cup winners. The stalemate with Al Ain saw them lose ground to second-placed Al Jazira and third-placed Al Shabab, though they also meet on Friday.

“I felt we lost two points, even though we played the champion team as we played well. We should have got all the points. Those points we dropped could be very important. Al Shabab and Al Jazira both won their games.”

 

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Eric Gerets adamant he is the right man to lead Al Jazira

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Ali Mabkhout (l) in action during Jazira's defeat to Wahda.

Despite falling short in their pursuit of Al Ain and the league title, Eric Gerets is adamant he will be in Abu Dhabi next season to oversee Al Jazira’s title charge.

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The Belgian signed a two-year contract last May and the former Lekhwiya coach says it will be a “pleasure” to honour his deal at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

It may not be his choice in the extremely fickle environment of the Arabian Gulf League – the Pride of Abu Dhabi having hired six different coaches in the last three years – but Gerets was buoyed by comments emanating from the club this week that suggested he will remain in charge next season.

The club, via its Twitter account, denied rumours that it was looking to hire a new coach on Monday, confirming the board of directors will meet at the end of the season to evaluate the performance of the playing and coaching staff.

“It’s easy. I have a contract for next season,” said Gerets at a press conference ahead of the Al Shabab game. “If somebody tells me ‘we don’t like you to stay’ it’s another story,” at which point goalkeeper Ali Khaseif said “no, he stay”.

Gerets added: “But if the club says that the work, the job that has been done, is OK, they want me to continue, with a lot of pleasure I will finish my contract.

“But you know, in football, what is true today is not necessarily true the day later, because there are a lot of things happening at the end of a season in a club, with the coach, with players.

“So what concerns myself is that I stick to my contract, which is for another year.”

Ali Mabkhout scored a hat-trick against Shabab in a 4-3 win at Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in December and Gerets confirmed the local hero will feature on Friday, despite dealing with a small injury.

The Belgian will, however, be hampered by the absence of three key players. AGL top scorer Mirko Vucinic, who has 25 goals in his debut campaign, winger Jonathan Pitroipa and midfield anchor Khamis Esmail will all miss the game after picking up bookings in the 2-1 win against Sharjah.

“If we win we are vice champions so that makes it a little bit more clear,” said the 60-year-old.

“Unfortunately, we have three players who took yellow cards, so that means that Mirko is out, Pitroipa is out, that Khamis is out, but I am sure we will find a team that will give a big challenge to Shabab.

“I always say to my players if you are not good enough to be first, you have to be second. If you are not good enough to be second, maximum you have to be is third.

“Now we have the chance to be second, because we have to be honest the best team this season was Al Ain.

“We have a chance to prove we are the second-best team in the Arabian Gulf League. This is a chance that we should take with both hands.”

He described Zlatko Dalic’s side as worthy champions, but warned the Boss to expect another title challenge from the Pride of Abu Dhabi next season.

“They have the most points so the team at the end of the race who have most of the points (deserve to be champions),” he said.

“We played a good game here against them. We played an even better game there and I think if the captain (Ali Khaseif) would be in the goal, I think we would not have lost that game.

“But that’s life, so congratulations to Al Ain and we will give you a rendezvous next season to have a better challenge, to beat them.”

Emirati stopper Khaseif said finishing second and beating Shabab, who are three points behind in third, will be important.

“It’s to be vice champion for the Arabian Gulf League. We have to focus,” said the 27-year-old. “We have some players who will not be there, but also we have other talented players, and we will focus to get the three points.”

He also said the team will concentrate on trying to win the President’s Cup, as well as focus on winning the “best titles” next season.

“I really appreciate the Al Jazira fans’ support and we apologise for not getting the title,” he added.

“We are focused on getting all the titles during the season and we are trying to get the best titles next season. This season we still have the President’s Cup and we hope to win the title.”

 

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Al Shabab’s charge to AFC Champions League continues despite challenges

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Home run: Shabab (r) are two games away from securing ACL qualification.

Talk of Al Shabab’s recent end-of-season collapses has only provided fuel for their drive towards the AFC Champions League places, according to playmaker Carlos Villanueva.

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Edgar Bruno’s late strike against Fujairah on Sunday ended a three-match winless Arabian Gulf League run and halted fears of another near miss for Asia’s elite club competition.

In the previous two seasons, they have frustratingly finished one spot outside the qualifying spots after stumbling towards the finish.

The Hawks operate with a smaller budget than their direct rivals and have a shallower playing squad.

Despite these drawbacks, they have regularly been in the mix at the front and currently sit third.

Chile star Villanueva has played a major role in confounding the odds since joining six years ago and stated the doubts only add motivation for the final two games, starting with Friday’s clash at second-placed Al Jazira.

“Edgar’s goal was very important,” the 29-year-old said.

“This result is like petrol for us, to face the two games we have in front. We want to fight for second and third.

“It would be a huge achievement for us. The other teams invest more money than us, but we are always fighting for the top four.

“Nobody talks about that, only about Al Shabab dropping points at the end of the season.

“We have had a very good season, though the last three games were disappointing. People will obviously talk about that. But we beat Fujairah, in a tough game.

"Now we focus on the game with Al Jazira.”

The top three are guaranteed an ACL place and avoid the lottery of the President’s Cup, which provides a further entry point.

Last season, Al Ain’s victory in that competition saw fourth-placed Shabab drop down into the GCC Club Cup.

Under former boss Marcos Paqueta in 2013/14, they lost three of their last five fixtures. Villanueva could not pin down one reason for this regular decline.

He said: “We always talk about it, among the players. Maybe it is because our squad is not too big – it could be that.

“We have also had injuries, like Rashid Hassan. He could help a lot and we are missing him.

“We are trying to fight. We have won our last two games [in all competitions], so that will give us a lot of energy until the end of the season.”

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