This was a game which spoke volumes about Al Jazira’s current priorities.
With a starting XI devoid of eight regulars and Esteghlal Khuzestan’s winning goal through Aloys Nong conceded after a minute, it is becoming increasingly unavoidable to deduce that progress in the 2017 AFC Champions League is not high on the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s priority list.
Safeguarding a runaway lead in the Arabian Gulf League ahead of imminent clashes with holders Al Ahli and runners-up Al Ain has seemingly been placed at the forefront.
When you also consider premium January addition Leonardo was not even registered for the group stage, the mountain of evidence becomes undeniable. Yet with a nine-point advantage and only seven fixtures to fulfil, is such a conservative approach really required to ensure a first success since 2010/11?
The introduction of UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa and South Korea anchorman Park Jong-woo ensured the President’s Cup champions at least made a fist of it – to their credit – after the break against the shock Persian Gulf Pro League winners.
They even rattled the woodwork through right-back Musallem Fayez’s header, which was matched at the other end by the influential Hassan Beyt Saeed’s thunderous free-kick.
Jazira coach Henk ten Cate was honest about his unalloyed pragmatism post-match. Yet two defeats from two games did not quell optimism.
He said: “I am 100-per-cent sure if we play our regular team, then this Iranian team is not a problem for us. But we are forced to make choices.
“By the way, there are still four games to go [in Group B]. We still have a chance.
“The [Arabian Gulf] League is the most important. We are in a good position and we want to keep it that way.
“Can Al Jazira win the AFC Champions League? My answer is ‘no’. Can Al Jazira win the Arabian Gulf League? My answer is ‘yes’.
“I can understand if the supporters are disappointed. But I have to look to the possibilities we have.”
For Monday night’s visitors, they celebrated like they had won the whole tournament after a perfect start to their first ACL campaign continued.
“I dedicate this win to the people of Khuzestan,” said coach Sirous Pourmousavi. “We can play only against a team we have in front of us, and if Jazira wanted to rest some of their players it’s their problem.”
The supporters in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had barely had time to take to their seats before Nong’s opener. It came from a throw-in from full-back Peyman Shirzadi, which was flicked on by playmakers Arash Afshin and Beyt Saeed prior to the Cameroonian taking full advantage of a sleeping rearguard to volley home.
Advancing Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida then kept trying to force an equalizer, only to be shut out at each turn by an Esteghlal side eager to play containment.
But by the time Boussoufa and Mabkhout were both on the pitch, the lead had come close to being doubled. Only the crossbar kept out Beyt Saeed’s set-piece on 59 minutes.
Fayez’s retorted to no avail, with this near-miss not sparking any sustained attacking pressure.
Jazira also crashed out at this point last year. The same conclusion will not hurt anywhere near as much this time if the AGL crown follows in May.
Lokomotiv Tashkent midfielder Salamat Kutibaev scored the second-fastest goal in AFC Champions League history as the Uzbek side picked up their first points of the 2017 edition with a 2-0 win against Al Ahli.
After suffering a 1-0 reversal to Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun on the opening day of Group A, 2016 quarter-finalists Lokomotiv shook off that defeat in record time as Kutibaev headed home Marat Bikmaev’s left-wing cross after just 18 seconds to stun Cosmin Olaroiu’s visitors.
The achievement is only bettered by Sebastian Soria’s nine-second opener for Lekhwiya against Pakhtakor in 2013.
Bikmaev went from provider to scorer to net the second, slotting past Majed Nasser
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.”
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.
تدريبات الفريق training https://t.co/trJuoKDnYe— AlJazira FC Official (@AlJazira_uae) February 26, 2017
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.