The likelihood of Arabian Gulf League champions Al Jazira crossing paths with record Champions League holders Real Madrid became a distinct possibility as the two clubs were set on a collision course with each other in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup.
The official draw for the competition – being staged in the UAE in December – was held in the UAE capital on Monday.
Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid will enter the tournament at the last four stage and could be waiting for Jazira at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on Wednesday, December 13, should Henk ten Cate’s men win their opening two games.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi lift the curtain on the 14th edition of the tournament when they face the Oceania Football Confederation champions Auckland City at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday, December 6.
The reigning AGL champions will be dreaming of facing the legendary Los Blancos a week later in their own city but will first need to overcome Ramon Tribulietx’s men – who have won the OFC Champions League title for the last seven seasons running.
Negotiate that hurdle and they will then need to beat the champions of Asia – Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, Iran’s Persepolis, China’s Shanghai SIPG or Japan’s Urawa Reds – for a shot at Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Co.
“It’s the cherry on the cake,” Ten Cate said at the draw, held at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.
“Winning the championship was very nice but competing in a tournament like this for a club like Al Jazira is the top achievement of all time.”
— Real Madrid C.F.🇬🇧 (@realmadriden) October 9, 2017
Dutchman Ten Cate was assistant to compatriot Frank Rijkaard when Rea’s great rivals Barcelona won the Champions League in 2006, but had moved to take charge of Ajax before competing in the Club World Cup that year, so much like his Jazira players, will be experiencing the competition for the first time. And he is hugely excited.
“I think it’s going to be amazing, if we are capable of winning the first game and going on to the next stage,” he added.
“I wasn’t here with Barcelona, so for me it’s the first time to participate and I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s nice we could play Madrid but the best thing is playing two more games if you win the first. This is what we have to focus on. Whether it’s possibly Madrid, the most important thing is to qualify. This is our biggest aim.
“If you win the first game you play two extra games and that would be very nice for everyone at the club, the players and me. Especially the supporters. Focus on the first match and forget about the rest.”
Ten Cate admits he hasn’t studied opening opponents Auckland yet, but he is certain his team will be much better than the one that has stuttered in the opening weeks of the new UAE season – earning just two wins from five games in all competitions.
“I think they (Auckland) hope they can play us now because we are not in the best shape,” he joked.
“The game is December 6 and a lot can happen in this time. I assure you though that we will be way better in December.”
No team has ever retained the Club World Cup trophy, which Los Blancos can do if they lift the title in Abu Dhabi on December 16.
They beat Kashima Antlers 4-2 after extra time in Yokohama 10 months ago to win it for a second time after their 2014 triumph. And after becoming the first team to retain the Champions League last season, Real director and former striker Emilio Butragueno insists they are chasing history again.
“History – it’s another challenge,” said the 54-year-old Spaniard who scored 165 goals in 454 games in the famous white shirt in a glittering 12-year career at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“I remember at the beginning of last season everybody said no team has been able to win the Champions League two consecutive years and we were able to do it. And then we come here to try and break history as well.”
But Butragueno, capped 69 times by La Roja, said chasing rivals Barcelona’s record of three Club World Cup titles was not on their agenda.
“No. Every time we play a competition we try to win it regardless of other cups,” he said.
“We are delighted with our track record and this is an opportunity to win again and to win more titles – that’s the goal.”
Despite the honour of being called the world champions of club football, Europe’s powerhouses don’t attach much significance to the Club World Cup compared to the Champions League and their own domestic titles.
But Butragueno insists Real will take the tournament seriously, despite hosting Barca in the first Clasico of the La Liga season four days after the Club World Cup final.
He said: “First of all we have to be focused on the semi-final. But we have to play each game at a time, so when we come here we’ll be focused on this tournament and after that we’ll have time to think about La Liga.
“It’s always difficult. We have to wait about our opponents. But this competition is difficult because it’s in the middle of the season, we are going to play on Saturday, come here and play Wednesday and so we have to prepare properly of course and we have to play at our best if we want to qualify for the final.
“Every game for us is important. Because while the expectations are very high always when we are talking about Real Madrid, we have to play well, we have to win every match.
“This is an important competition for us. We won the Champions League, that’s why we are here, so we’ll do our best of course to win again.
“Football is 90 minutes, anything can happen. Of course we have a very good team. We have very talented players, but 90 minutes anything can happen.”
Eric Abidal believes teenage compatriot Kylian Mbappe could one day be as good as the legendary Pele – but the Paris Saint-Germain striker must work “every day” to fulfill his incredible talent.
Former Barcelona defender Abidal, 38, agrees with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger that their fellow Frenchman could one day be mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Brazilian, but has warned the precocious talent that his ability is not enough.
Left-back Abidal, who won two Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles with the Blaugrana in six glorious seasons at the Camp Nou, was speaking at the official draw for the FIFA Club World Cup UAE which took place in Abu Dhabi on Monday.
Gunners boss Wenger described Mbappe as “the new Pele” last month following his move across Ligue 1 from Monaco, and Les Bleus idol Abidal agrees he could become one of the world’s greatest ever footballers.
“Yes he can. But I can say also he has to, because he has a lot of talent,” Abidal told reporters at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel in the capital.
“He is only 18-years-old. PSG have hired one of the best players of his age so he deserves a good career. But he has to work. Talent is not enough, you have to work every day.
“And with Neymar and other good players around him he has to learn from them. I’m French and he’s French too so I hope in a few years he wins some titles with his club and maybe in a personal capacity too, like a Ballon d’Or.”
Abidal won 15 major trophies with Barca, including playing a part in the May 2011 Champions League title success despite having undergone surgery to remove a tumour on his liver two just months earlier.
It was part of a magical four-year spell under boss Pep Guardiola. And Abidal said it is the now Manchester City manager’s attention to detail that yielded so much success.
“In the world of football you can talk about very good coaches but details is the most important thing, and that is how you would describe Guardiola,” said 67-times capped French international Abidal.
“You can have the best players but lose titles, Champions League and big games, only by small margins. This is the mindset of Guardiola. To him the small details are the most important thing needed to win a championship.”
Comparisons are often drawn between the Barca sides that won the Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011. Abidal would not be drawn on which he believed was better but said the Guardiola era at the club as special for football.
“It was maybe one of the best times for the football industry and also the club,” said Abidal who won the 2009 and 2011 Club World Cup titles with Barca.
“We had an opportunity to win six trophies in one year (2009) and be an example to other clubs, but the most important thing is the team, how you live during the season and this is the victory. If you can achieve it then the games are easy.
“Now is not the time to talk because it’s the start of the season. I know the mindset of the club is always to win titles. The players will never be any different. Barca is Barca and they will fight every year to win titles.
“But they know Real Madrid are also fighting and the smallest teams always want to beat Barcelona too so they have to be focused. Like Mbappe they have to work every day to achieve this.”
In the hour of their need, Croatia have turned to a familiar face for fans of Middle Eastern football.
Zlatko Dalic, last seen exiting Al Ain in the wake of a downward spiral which followed November 2016’s dispiriting loss in the AFC Champions League final, was confirmed yesterday as the man to salvage waning hopes of the Balkan nation making World Cup 2018.
Students of his three-year spell in the Garden City will know that Croatian Football Federation [HNS] president Davor Suker has not gone for a master tactician capable of constructing an elaborate plan for Monday’s do-or-die Group I clash in Ukraine.
Neither does his self-effacing nature and absence of all-consuming ego mean a cult of personality will elicit the requisite result – this is not how the likeable 50-year-old operates.
Dalic showed throughout his time in Al Ain that simplicity is sacrosanct. With precious little time to prepare, Suker’s ailing governing body would have struggled to find a candidate boasting a better fit for the parameters in place.
The ex-Croatia Under-21s assistant is known by few. However, his methods deliver results. They brought supreme playmaker Omar Abdulrahman a long-expected AFC Player of the Year in 2016.
The club celebrated the 2013/14 President’s Cup, 2014/15 Arabian Gulf League and a run to their first Asian showpiece in 11 years, in spite of a downturn in investment.
The contrasts are no accidents to the divisive Ante Cacic this time and the combustible Spaniard Quique Sanchez Flores when called upon by the Boss in March 2014.
A tight grip was not placed on ‘Amoory’ tactically or physically. Rather, he was kept happy and allowed to express himself within the framework of a 4-2-3-1 that is de rigueur within the region.
A talented squad driven to distraction by Cacic will warmly welcome this amenable approach. Real Madrid superstar Luka Modric should not need to repeat the cutting words that followed Friday’s 1-1 draw at home to Finland, which has put Croatia in such a predicament.
Luka Modric isn’t holding back 👀 pic.twitter.com/JZfccm08zv— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 7, 2017
As Abdulrahman and Ghana centre forward Asamoah Gyan can attest, Dalic is a firm believer in attacking football. With the majority of talent found in the offensive half of the team, a goal difference of +116 from his spell at Al Ain should provide hope to the likes of Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic.
They will head to Ukraine for this cataclysmic clash eager to take the match to hosts for whom they sit level on 17 points.
As with every candidate, Dalic is far from perfect. His placid and affable nature over time can grate and be construed for a lack of killer instinct.
Fan revolt and an inability to lift Al Ain after the disappointment of losing the continental showpiece to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors led to his inexorable exit.
But these fissures will not form over the weekend. Freed from the rancour and open warfare fostered by Cacic, watch Croatia belatedly blossom.