After defeating newly-crowned Asia champions Urawa Red Diamonds 1-0 in the FIFA World Club Cup quarter-finals on Saturday, they have the attention of the continent, perhaps even the world for a night, with this dream semi-final.
They must now make use of the stage they occupy to join the Asian elite and become one of their heavyweights.
Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Qatar’s Al Sadd have all feasted on continental success, and have been joined at the West Asia top table by UAE clubs Al Ain (champions in 2003) and Al Ahli (now Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club), who have shown aptitude on the continent in recent years.
All the while, we write about Jazira enjoying parity with this duo back home, labelling them a fellow giant of UAE football.
Yet during recent participation in the AFC Champions League, the Pride of Abu Dhabi were embarrassingly outclassed. They recorded a measly one point from six group games and held the joint worst record of all 32 teams along with Thailand’s Buriram United in 2016.
This season they fared little better, earning two points and still finishing bottom of their group – rising to be only the 31st worst team in the competition after Hong Kong’s Eastern Sports Club.
Even Al Wahda, seen as a smaller club next to their illustrious rivals in the capital city, have made a more meaningful impact on Asia.
The Clarets finished bottom of their group with four points this year but faced much tougher opposition in a group consisting of finalists Hilal, Persepolis and Al Rayyan – they still scored a group high 12 goals.
They were also semi-finalists as recently as 2007.
Jazira’s best showing in the competition, meanwhile, was exiting at the last 16 stage in both 2012 and 2014.
Those aforementioned group stage exits were something of an anomaly – coach Henk ten Cate has previously spoken of how an incredibly gifted young, but very raw, side were always going to struggle in the last two years.
This week, when addressing the subject of participating in next year’s competition, however, he was more optimistic.
The Dutchman has truly had the Midas touch since arriving at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in December 2015 to replace Abel Braga. He awoke a sleeping giant that had started flirting with relegation, and by season’s end had steered them to President’s Cup glory.
Twelve months on, his team hoisted the Arabian Gulf League title, a first in six years. And now, having already defied the odds to beat Asia’s finest in Urawa four days ago, his team face Europe, and indeed the world’s, finest.
This has all been achieved via Ten Cate bestowing chances on a plethora of talented academy players – chief among them Khalfan Mubarak and Mohamed Jamal.
This season Mohammed Al Attas, 20, and Eissa Al Otaibah, 19, have made their bows, and not looked out of place.
They’ve come a long way. And while the players, especially the local ones, should cherish their encounter with the Galacticos tonight – they must look at the bigger picture and target a deep run into the ACL next year.
For all he has done at the club so far, Ten Cate will leave a lasting legacy if he can take his troops one step further on the continent than domestic rivals Al Ain and Ahli have managed in recent attempts – both losing in finals (2015 and 2016).
Win or lose tonight, Al Jazira have everything to gain.
Zinedine Zidane and Marcelo insist the looming Clasico with Barcelona is far from their minds as Real Madrid go in search of a Club World Cup triumph that would move them alongside their bitter La Liga rivals as the most successful sides in the tournament’s history.
The Blaugrana stand alone with three victories in the competition’s 13-year history – lifting the trophy in 2009, 2011 and 2015.
Real are reigning champions, having beaten Japan’s Kashima Antlers on penalties in Yokohama a year ago, winning their first Club World Cup in 2014.
And while Los Blancos host Barca in a real Christmas Clasico classic in their next league game on December 23, both coach Zidane and left-back Marcelo are fully focused on retaining their world title and the semi-final clash with UAE champions Al Jazira in the capital tonight.
“We have to try and win the title and we are here for that. We think only of this competition and that is it,” said the Frenchman when asked in yesterday’s press conference at Zayed Sports City Stadium how he was preparing for the first Clasico of the season.
“It’s another competition that we want to do our best in. We know it’s not going to be easy. We have a semi-final and we want to pass it.
“We are here, relaxing and training and thinking about tomorrow’s match, and nothing about La Liga or our many other games. We will think about tomorrow and then the final if we win, and then think about playing Barcelona.”
Brazilian defender Marcelo similarly responded when quizzed asked about a mouthwatering Champions League tie Madrid face with French giants Paris Saint-Germain in the new year.
“They will be two wonderful matches and I have lots of friends there, but at the moment our minds are here,” said the 29-year-old.
“We are not talking about future matches. We are concentrating on the Club World Cup and we want to win the semi-final and reach the final.”
Zidane, though, will be forgiven for pondering the prospect of his team selection for the Barca game, with suspensions carrying over should any of his players get sent off tonight, and again if they make Saturday’s final.
But the former Madrid midfielder insisted he will take no special precautions with the likes of his big name stars, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale.
“It could be something that could happen,” he admitted. “The players are playing well and deserve to play in different competitions. I think it will be hard but I don’t think anything will happen because I think in a positive manner. It could be strange but we accept it.”
— #ClubWC 🇦🇪🏆 (@FIFAcom) December 12, 2017
His comments were echoed by Marcelo, who said: “It doesn’t influence us, we will play like we always play.
“First we have the semi-final, which will be difficult. To play this tournament is a prize, we are the champions. You can be sent off in any league so it doesn’t affect us. We are to play and we are not going to change anything.”
Zidane says he has brought a fully-fit squad of 21 players with him to the Emirates. And even though Real are heavy favourites to make the final, he knows the Pride of Abu Dhabi will raise their game for what is the biggest game in their history.
“Before I didn’t know them but now I know them much better,” said Zidane, who has been buoyed by the welcome they have had since arriving on Monday.
“I’m very happy about the city and welcoming. It’s nice to see people supporting Real Madrid.
“They’re (Jazira) going to do their best and take their chances playing against us. It’s the match of the year for them to play Real Madrid, so we think it will be a challenging match.
“We know there is not any match that is easy. We have a match against an opponent everyone says will be an easy match. We don’t think that, we think it will be hard.
“Whenever you play in a competition, everyone wants to do their best because it is Real Madrid. Anything can happen in football, so we have to be very concentrated and well prepared.
“We are looking for a title and we want to defend the title we won last year. For that we have come here, it has been a long trip, it’s a competition we want to win, we want to go back with the trophy.”
Rio de Janeiro native Marcelo has won 17 major honours with Los Blancos, including being a member of the two previous Club World Cup-winning squads. And he says he is as motivated as ever to win a third titles and 18th for the club overall.
“We believe that all the titles we fight for is the most important thing,” he said.
“I’m very proud to have won all of these titles with Real Madrid and this is another motivation I have, to continue fighting. This tournament is very important for us. We have to fight for all the titles and we will go for it, to reach the final.”
Here we take a look at three takeaways from Henk ten Cate’s press conference ahead of the highly-anticipated clash.
Fantasy football for Jazira
Any football fan around the world who owns a games console, plays FIFA. And even with a huge game on his hands – a Club World Cup semi-final Henk ten Cate labelled arguably his greatest achievement in management – the Dutchman was able to cut through the pomp and fanfare and illustrate why football is called the beautiful game.
Jazira are a club that champion their youth, with numerous youngsters from their flourishing academy brought into and thriving in the first team by Ten Cate.
By revealing to journalists how these youngsters will today go from playing with their Real Madrid idols on a PlayStation on the team bus, to lining up against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co in the tunnel before testing themselves out on the field, he was able to encapsulate just how much this must be an occasion to cherish.
Ten Cate: “They play PlayStation on the bus when we go to away games and a lot of them support Madrid, so they know all the players. It’s kind of funny as the same boys playing the PlayStation on the bus are tomorrow facing the real stars.”
Mabkhout in a race against time to be fit for biggest game of their careers
In essence it’s a glorified friendly that won’t impact their season, but you feel truly sorry if any Al Jazira player misses out on today’s game of a lifetime against global superpower Real Madrid.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi alrady had a plethora of injuries heading into the tournament, but coach Henk ten Cate touched on the possibility of a few more players possibly missing the dream clash with Los Blancos.
Rumours abound that prolific Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout may miss the game after picking up an injury in victory against Urawa Red Diamonds on Saturday. If this turns out to be true, it would be a tragedy for the leathal marksman.
Not only was it his goal that earned them a semi-final date with Real, it was his immense contribution of 33 goals in 25 Arabian Gulf League matches on the way to the title last season that had put Jazira in the tournament.
Bar Al Ain’s Omar Abdulrahman, Mabkhout is the biggest star if UAE football, with countless years of speculation he has wanted a move to Europe. Many would love to see it happen, and of all the players who deserve to be in the shop window tonight, Mabkhout is head and shoulders above anyone.
Ten Cate: “We have some injuries and a few more after the last match. But the medical staff are doing everything they can, working really hard to get everyone on the field tomorrow.”
Rise of Jazira is due to Ten Cate instilling a work ethic in his players
When celebrated former idol Abel Braga returned to Al Jazira in the summer of 2015 following Eric Gerets’ dismissal, fans and club hierarchy alike were predicting a return to the recent glory days of when the Brazilian delivered Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup glory in a glorious first spell.
It turned into unmitigated disaster, though, Braga was sacked before the turn of the year, and in came Henk ten Cate. During the Braga reign, stories were rife of a team out of shape and little emphasis put on fitness, with players regularly skipping training.
Under Ten Cate, however, Jazira have transformed into a well drilled unit. He has said on numerous occasions that what his players lack in star quality compared to the likes of rivals Al Ain, Al Wasl and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, they make up for in spirit.
Slowly instilling discipline and a professional environment, under the watch of a talented coach, has yielded huge success, with the president’s Cup lifted in his first season, the AGL title coming a year later and now a Club World Cup semi-final.
Jazira’s chances of success against Real are slim, but you can be sure his players will fight and scrap for their lives, the “bitter end” as Ten Cate himself said.
Ten Cate: “The difference in quality is just too huge. But my team will fight, like they did before, they will fight until the bitter end.”