What a difference a year makes in UAE football, especially in the capital city which is on the brink of a power shift between giants Al Jazira and a team that are definitely no longer just pretenders to their throne, Al Wahda.
Twelve months ago, the Pride of Abu Dhabi battled Al Ain for the Arabian Gulf League title, Eric Gerets’ men running out of steam down the home straight as the Garden City side eventually won by nine points.
The gap was misleading and Jazira’s efforts were reflected in scooping an individual double, with Ali Mabkhout named Emirati Player of the Year and the mercurial Mirko Vucinic Foreign Player of the Year at the AGL Awards.
This year, it was Abu Dhabi rivals Wahda collecting a brace, with Sebastian Tagliabue named Best Foreign Player and Mohamed Al Akbari, 20, named U21 Player of the Year as the Clarets finished third.
At Jazira, Gerets was ushered out, signalling the return of Brazilian, Abel Braga. He was supposed to deliver a first AGL title in five years – yet he was gone after just 16 miserable games.
Languishing in 12th place, Henk ten Cate delivered stability as Jazira recovered to finish seventh, but a woeful AFC Champions League campaign means he is likely to be jettisoned in the summer.
Four kilometres down the road, meanwhile, Wahda, under astute and affable Javier Aguirre, are plotting a revolt against the established Abu Dhabi footballing royalty.
Having finished second two seasons ago, 2014/15 was blighted by Jose Peseiro’s bizarre sacking and the Clarets sinking to fourth under Sami Al Jaber. Aguirre’s arrival last summer brought stability and much more, the Clarets celebrating becoming Arabian Gulf Cup champions as well as a berth in the Champions League playoffs.
Their success has been underpinned by lethal Argentine Tagliabue, who topped the AGL charts with 25 strikes in 26 games.
The Latin American cocktail is completed by the genius of Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia and Brazilian midfielder Denilson adding steel – all of which is woven together by the vast experience of Mexican Aguirre.
Though they do not have the finances to compete with Al Ahli, Al Ain and Jazira, Wahda can push on from this and compete for the AGL title next season.
Achieve that and they will also be crowned the new kings of the capital.
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Javier Aguirre used his final press conference of the season to set his Al Wahda players an ambitious target for next season – become Arabian Gulf League champions.
The Mexican steered his side to third place in his maiden campaign in the Emirates and into the AFC Champions League playoffs. In a season of firsts at Al Nahyan Stadium, the Clarets also lifted their first Arabian Gulf Cup.
Aguirre said the four-time UAE champions, who last celebrated lifting an AGL title in 2010, have a tall task to topple champions Al Ahli, who finished 23 points ahead of them, but insists his side have no excuses not to improve next season.
“Next season we will fight for the title,” said the 57-year-old with cautious optimism on Sunday. “We haven’t talked about the goals but we will be fighting in four tournaments. We have to do this.”
The former Atletico Madrid manager admits that while the club might not be able to compete financially with superpowers Ahli, Al Ain and Al Jazira, he believes he has a good mix of youth and experience in his squad.
“(Jorge) Valdivia has a contract (for two years), all the young players renew, Hamdan (Al Kamali) extended his contract, goalkeeper (Adel Al Hosani) too so we have no excuses not to be better,” he said.
“I don’t know if that big, big gap can be closed but I’m really confident for next year. Today, 23 points is a big gap to Al Ahli. They and Al Ain are much better than us, but we have to close that gap.
“We don’t have money to invest in two or three big names. We can’t compete with Al Ahli, who paid more than Dh100 million on players, and we don’t like to spend money like this because we have a really good academy and can use our young players next year.”
Though Wahda may lack financial muscle against these juggernauts, Aguirre has earmarked several areas where his side can improve.
“Of course we have to be a better team. We have to get more points and everyone has to work better, including myself,” added Aguirre. “We suffered too many defeats (nine) in my opinion. We also have to not repeat the mistakes of the past, so not as many yellow cards, red cards. In the beginning of the season we left many points on the field, so the key is hard work from the beginning.”
Aguirre pointed to a 3-2 win against Emirates Club on November 27 as the key match of the campaign.
Trailing 2-0 with 13 minutes to go, Denilson, Mohamed Al Shehhi and a dramatic stoppage time Ismail Matar winner started a sequence of 10 wins in 18 games as they surged to third.
“From the Emirates game, our performances got better, that was the key for the season, because we were losing 2-0, but changed the result,” said Aguirre. “If we lost we might have been playing for 10th or ninth place. I think we deserved to finish third and we got the Arabian Gulf Cup too.”
Chile playmaker Luis Jimenez has cast doubt on his Al Nasr future after revealing there is interest in his signature from clubs in his homeland.
The 31-year-old midfielder has 12 months remaining on his two-year contract with the Blue Wave, having moved from Al Ahli last summer after four trophy-laden seasons.
Jimenez was quoted in South American media as saying he would consider playing for a club that can vie for titles in the Campeonato Nacional.
Speaking after Nasr’s 3-1 victory over Fujairah on the final day of the Arabian Gulf League season, Jimenez opened up on his dream of playing in the Chilean top-flight.
“I always receive some interest from clubs from my country but there’s nothing concrete,” said the former West Ham and Internazionale schemer. “I have never played in Chile. I left my country when I was 16.
“I have one year remaining on my contract and I am happy here. I like the club, the team and I feel very good in this country. But in football, you never know what will happen. I really don’t know.”
Jimenez has 26 international caps for his country and admits he would like to see out his career in his homeland.
“Chile is my country and I’ve played for the national team. For me, I feel I don’t want to finish my football career without playing in my country,” he added.
After a week’s rest, Nasr will turn their focus to tomorrow’s AFC Champions League last-16 first-leg clash at home to Iran’s Tractor Sazi. It will be the first knockout appearance for the Blue Wave after finishing runners-up behind Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in Group A.
Nasr can still qualify for next season’s premier continental competition if either Al Ahli or Al Ain win the President’s Cup, after finishing a disappointing fourth in the AGL, and Jimenez is wary of the Iranian outfit.
“They are a very tough team but we’ve played well this season and we are ready,” he said. “We will prepare the game in the best way we can. We have to try.”