ACL: Al Jazira won't ditch Asian dream for AGL title fight

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Al Jazira assistant Jan Versleijen has declared no decision has been made to sacrifice AFC Champions League progress for domestic glory.

The pointless Pride of Abu Dhabi host surprise Persian Gulf Pro League winners Esteghlal Khuzestan on Monday evening for their second fixture in Group B. This game comes before a defining double-header in the Arabian Gulf League for the runaway leaders, at holders Al Ahli on Saturday and home to runners-up Al Ain the following Wednesday.

With their latest continental campaign beginning with a dreadful 3-0 hiding against Qatar’s Lekhwiya last week and star Brazilian winger Leonardo not even registered for the competition so he can rest, a potential issue about prioritising is clear. But for Versleijen, he insisted the players will “fight like we have done all season” against the Iranians.

“If we are focusing only on the league, we will start with a completely different team,” said the 61-year-old, who has experienced two previous spells in sole charge of Jazira. “We have three games in one week, so we have to balance out by rotating the players to keep everybody in good shape.

“Always the first game is the most important and that’s tomorrow’s game. Be sure, we fight like we have done all season.”

Jazira could welcome back South Korea centre midfielder Park Jong-woo from injury. UAE prospect Ahmed Al Attas should get a chance in attack, while either deadly front man Ali Mabkhout or Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida may sit it out.

Esteghlal’s first-ever ACL game went perfectly last Monday as centre-back Abolfazl Alaei’s 80th-minute header condemned Saudi Arabia’s Al Fateh to a 1-0 defeat.

This result contrasts with shaky domestic form which sees the champions a lowly seventh.

They have spent the build-up acclimitising in Dubai and boss Sirous Pourmousavi, 45, is full of belief about his inexperienced squad.

He said: “We are in a good situation. We spent a few days in Dubai in a camp and now ready looking forward to our first game away.

“Jazira are leading their league and they should be respected.

“Our only problem is that we have less experience at this level. But I trust we have good players.”

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#360view: Jazira need to ditch continental fear of failure

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Jazira were stunned in their first group match.

Landmark triumphs can become more daunting the closer they approach.

Panic about seeing untrammelled success reach a sudden end will play tricks on the mind, chopping away at emboldened belief.

For Al Jazira, this effect has been noticeable when it comes to the 2017 AFC Champions League.

Their – thus far – unchecked charge towards a first Arabian Gulf League crown since 2010/11 has been an enlivening surprise after last term’s misery in it.

A bountiful nine-point lead is held with only seven games to play, meaning if successive matches against heavyweights Al Ahli and Al Ain go to recent form within the next 10 days, then the hallowed trophy will be all but theirs.

Assistant Jan Versleijen repeatedly moved to reject talk during Sunday’s pre-match press conference that progress at home is being given greater value.

But the teamsheet for the visit of Esteghlal Khuzestan on Monday will speak volumes about the club’s continental intentions.

This is not the time to countenance demure moves. With no outstanding candidate in West Asia, the Pride of Abu Dhabi should instead be living up to their bold nickname.

Firing on all cylinders, they could face up the likes of UAE neighbours – and defeated 2016 finalists – Al Ain, Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal and Iran heavyweights Persepolis. An improvement on their club-best run to the round of 16 is eminently possible.

Instead, a reticence rarely witnessed since coach Henk ten Cate took charge in December 2015 saw them whipped 3-0 at Qatar Stars League challengers Lekhwiya last week when Group B got under way.

Djamel Belmadi’s men are strong, but not so omnipotent to push Jazira aside with impunity. This result spoke more of a psychological barrier, rather than disparity in playing ability.

A fight on two fronts does not necessitate a double collapse and Ten Cate’s squad is packed with premium players.

UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout is comfortably one of Asia’s most-feared marksmen, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa has added refinement in midfield and right-back Mohammed Fawzi can always be relied upon.

This list does not even include outstanding Brazilian winger and January purchase Leonardo, who is sitting out the group stages because of the lingering effects of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ run to the 2016 ACL crown.

Such players should be fighting on all fronts. There should be no place for a fear of failure.

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Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools - The players who went pro

Sport360 staff 21/02/2017

Bobby Charlton Soccer & Sports Academy (BCSSA) will be coming to Dubai as announced this week.

Bookings are available for a limited 60 places for their camp to be held February 24 and 25 in Dubai, where they have teamed up with Desert Rangers FC Dubai to bring the British coaching expertise to the region.

David Beckham was discovered at the Bobby Charlton Soccer School and Sir Bobby Charlton then took him straight to Manchester United where he began an illustrious career that saw him then play for Real Madrid and captain England.

This gallery looks at eight of the best players to graduate from the BCSSA and go pro. To book one of the spots at the academy in Dubai, click here.

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