The eyes of world football return to the UAE on Wednesday evening.
After seven years away, the 2017 Club World Cup kicks-off in earnest when Al Jazira, the sole Emirates entrants, battle the veteran semi-professionals of Auckland City. At stake in the resplendent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium is a place in the tournament proper and the true oasis in the middle of the desert; a potential semi-final meeting with European grandees Real Madrid.
Football in the UAE is in need of the adrenaline burst provided by such exalted visitors. The heralded ‘Golden Generation’ of Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and company was recently found to be made of pyrite, coming up short in an apparently predestined quest to make World Cup 2018.
Similar depression can be found in the domestic game. Declining oil prices have drained several star names away, while continued indifference and isolation make average crowds in the Arabian Gulf League remain small by most standards across the globe.
Yet holding marquee sporting events – with 2018’s competition to follow – is usually something in which the country has excelled. Optimism is not misguided about the football extravaganza ahead.
From the iconic Dubai World Cup and its $10 million bonanza for horse racing’s finest, to the glamorous Formula One circuit winding down its season in style at Yas Marina. This sense of grandeur is extended to golf and tennis, where the Race to Dubai and Dubai Duty Free Tennis tournament are among those cherished.
Madrid are adored in the UAE, fervent fans sure to pack out each game and event they arrange once they arrive next Monday. ‘Fly Emirates’ adorns their treasured jerseys, while IPIC remain officially attached to the Bernabeu redevelopment despite reports in Spain of a split.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and the rest of their illustrious cohorts will be treated like sporting gods from the moment they set foot in the Middle East.
It is hoped that reverence is also granted to Gremio, Urawa Red Diamonds, Wydad Casablanca and Pachuca.
Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Internazionale attracted huge crowds during both previous runnings nearly a decade ago, but large swathes of empty seats were regular sights for the best of the rest.
Organisers will be tested by such intense interest in Europe’s finest. Madrid’s last visit to Dubai in December 2014 led to ugly scenes outside The Sevens as an unexpected onslaught of fans caused about 2,000 spectators to be denied access to the friendly with AC Milan.
— #ClubWC 🇦🇪🏆 (@FIFAcom) December 5, 2017
For a true legacy to be created, AGL holders Jazira must experience similarly exacting times. The Pride of Abu Dhabi’s Emirati contingent have missed out on an invaluable stint next summer in Russia.
For the continued development of the next generation in moustached playmaker Khalfan Mubarak, emerging full-back Mohammed Al Attas and his 22-year-old uncle Ahmed Al Attas, more exposure to elite action is invaluable.
Beat Auckland’s semi-pros, and this opportunity opens up.
Precedents for success by the domestic entrants are fresh. J1 League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima – with Al Ain’s Douglas scoring twice – finished third in 2015, while Kashima Antlers memorably pushed Madrid to extra-time in last year’s showpiece.
This is 10, rare, days in the sun for UAE football. It can’t let this chance go by.
Real Madrid missed the chance to close the gap on Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table to six points following a goalless draw at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night.
Here, we look at the key talking points from the San Mamés Stadium.
NO RESPITE FOR REAL MADRID
With his team under pressure following a poor run of form, Zinedine Zidane sent out Real Madrid for Saturday’s game in Bilbao with the motivation of catching up two points on Barcelona after the leaders drew 2-2 with Celta Vigo earlier in the day. It was a great opportunity for Los Blancos to make up some lost ground, but they couldn’t take it after being held to a frustrating goalless draw.
And in truth, although they hit the post twice through Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, the point was about all they deserved. It could have been worse, in fact, with returning goalkeeper Keylor Navas making some decent saves to preserve a clean sheet.
This wasn’t a terrible performance from Zidane’s men but they should have created more clear chances considering the amount of possession they enjoyed, and the reliance upon crosses by full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal is a cause for concern. The return of Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale from injury could not come quick enough – and Zidane should also certainly consider giving more playing time to out of favour Dani Ceballos.
SUSPENSIONS GALORE FOR SEVILLA VISIT
The late dismissal of skipper Sergio Ramos for a pair of dubious yellow cards was not the only bad news for Zidane on the disciplinary front, with Dani Carvajal and Casemiro also picking up their fifth yellow cards of the season to earn suspensions for next weekend’s home meeting with Sevilla.
Ramos, of course, will also miss that game, which is threatening to become a real banana skin for Zidane’s men. Sevilla have hit form in recent weeks, winning their last three games, and if they can – as expected – clinch progression to the knockout stage in the Champions League in midweek, they will be heading to the Bernabeu with confidence sky-high.
Zidane will have to spend the week working out how to reshape his back four, with the most likely scenario seeing Nacho at right-back and youngster Jesus Vallejo in the middle. But it would be the first time that quartet has ever played together, and Achraf Hakimi provides another option on the right, allowing Nacho to step into the middle alongside Raphael Varane. Whatever decision he comes to, it’s a headache Zidane could do without.
ATHLETIC IN FALSE POSITION
One of the surprises of the La Liga campaign so far has been the struggles of Athletic Bilbao, who have finished 4th, 7th, 5th and 7th in the last four seasons but entered this weekend’s meeting with Madrid well down in 16th place, having only won three league games so far.
On the evidence they presented in San Mames on Saturday night, however, the storied Basque club won’t be down there for much longer. They fully deserved their point against the reigning champions, and could even have taken all three if battle-hardened front duo Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia had made the most of their chances.
Athletic’s current position is also skewed by the fact they were handed a particularly tough start by La Liga’s fixture computer, and they have already played against all the top six. With some more winnable contests coming up, they could well climb into the top half of the table before the winter break.
Anthony Martial’s game-winning goal against Tottenham displays that he’s responding well to the pressure after a disappointing second season at Manchester United and he’s showing great commitment to the club.
You need more than one decisive goal in a big game, but it is definitely a big boost for him, because as a player you want to contribute and as a striker the best way to contribute is to score.
He’s also responded well to Romelu Lukaku’s header, that takes some understanding and belief that your partner is going to win the ball.
It was the right moment for him to score but it’s everything that he’s done since the beginning of pre-season that is counting now.
The impact he had during the Tottenham game is due to work behind the scenes.
Martial is still learning, he’s still young, just one year older than Marcus Rashford, but as soon as he’s come on the field this season or started games he’s had an impact from assists or scoring goals.
So he’s progressing and that’s credit to him and the staff to guiding him towards these positive performances.
I’m sure there was interest from other clubs during the summer due to his diminished game time last season but he’s answered with a straightforward statement: “I’m staying, I’m going to prove I’m worth the money invested and I’m worth being a striker for United.”
Credit must also go to Jose Mourinho for bringing out the best in him. Young talented players are being praised by their parents, entourage, agents, press, big fees early on, big contracts, and sometimes they need a kick in the a*** to realise they are not the done deal yet – and that was the case with Anthony.
Will you EVER play Rashford & Martial together in the same XI, Jose?! 🤔 pic.twitter.com/Uv4MxdIdVV— Goal (@goal) October 30, 2017
He’s not the finished article at the top level, playing for United and the French national team requires more concentration, determination, involvement in the work.
That was the message when there was public criticism from Mourinho and it looks like it’s paying off because Anthony is a better player than he was last season.
You could feel last year was difficult for him – body language, frustration, everything that he was doing wasn’t going his way. But I thought this changed when I saw what he said when his future at United was being questioned by the media.
Saying something is one thing but putting the action in behind is even more important.
He did this during pre-season because that is when I was with the team, watching training and games also. You could see that he was determined to show his critics who was right and start fresh again.
Overall the Spurs match was a good result for United. It’s not always pretty football but its getting the results which is what the club wants and the fans want.