A game of few chances produced the requisite goalless stalemate as depleted Arabian Gulf League champions stared down vibrant challengers.
With many star men left on the treatment table and their worst-ever start registered in the professional era, holders Al Jazira had everything to do Friday night on home soil at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium to dampen the electric visitors of Al Wasl.
Watched on by new UAE boss Alberto Zaccheroni, a belated show of title-winning character saw the counter-attacking hosts batten the hatches in the absence of UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout, ex-France anchorman Lassana Diarra and Co. A side with eight goals conceded in the previous four top-flight games somehow did what no others had done since April – shutout the purring Cheetahs.
Indeed, Pride of Abu Dhabi boss Henk ten Cate could hold regret if he was feeling greedy. Delightful set-pieces from Morocco metronome Mbark Boussoufa should have been headed home early on by wasteful stand-in striker Ahmed Al Attas and UAE reserve centre-back Fares Juma.
But perform like this in the defining tests to come against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Al Ain, and they can toil their way back into the race for silverware.
— قناة أبوظبي الرياضية (@ADSportsTV) October 20, 2017
For second-placed Wasl, this was an exhibition of Fabio De Lima’s importance. An alternative route could not be found once the six-goal forward – a figure representative of 66.6 per cent of his side’s 2017/18 AGL goals – was marked into obscurity by diligent left-back Salem Rashid.
A meeting between last term’s shock runaway winners and opponents who stunningly surged from nowhere to runners-up under regenerative Argentine Rodolfo Arruabarrena could have produced a classic.
There was no sign of this ever being the case as the weakened home side sat deep and challenged Wasl to break them down.
Ahmed Al Attas wasted presentable chances with head and foot. At the other end untested UAE No1 Ali Khaseif had time to count all 7,311 attendees in the stands.
It was that sort of encounter.
Former AC Milan, Lazio, Juventus and Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni was officially announced on Monday as the person who will lead the UAE on home soil at January 2019’s Asian Cup.
Zaccheroni, 64, will be unveiled to media this afternoon after he inked a 16-month deal – with an option to renew – worth approximately $2.5 million to replace Edgardo Bauza. The Argentine shockingly defected to World Cup 2018 qualifiers Saudi Arabia in September after only three mixed competitive matches.
This announcement brought an end to an exhaustive search which witnessed more than 20 different options being studied. Availability was key to the new man being hired, the UAE Football Association not willing to wait for Ricardo Gareca of Peru and Jorge Luis Pinto of Honduras who are preparing for next month’s inter-confederation play-offs – which could lead to participation during the global extravaganza in Russia.
Tributes from lauded fellow Italians such as current and former Al Nasr tacticians Cesare Prandelli and Walter Zenga, plus the iconic Fabio Capello, helped convince the Whites board of Zaccheroni’s merits. His recent four-year spell at Japan also added weight, during which he won the 2011 Asian Cup and departed in the aftermath of a group-stage exit at World Cup 2014.
— uaefa (@uaefa_ae) October 16, 2017
An initial offer was rejected last week by the 1998/99 Serie A winner with Milan. But a breakthrough in talks caused him to jet into Dubai airport late on Saturday night.
Zaccheroni was last employed by Beijing Guoan. He was sacked in May 2016 after five miserable months saw the club’s worst-ever start to the Chinese Super League recorded, this period including just two wins in nine fixtures.
With no World Cup ahead, Zaccheroni will concentrate on the upcoming continental competition. UAE FA president Marwan bin Ghalita has publicly targeted a minimum run to the final.
The UAE were ranked 72nd by FIFA on Monday, good enough only to be the seventh-best team in Asia.
The Whites will meet up early next month, ahead of a friendly at home to World Cup entrants Egypt on November 9. A second fixture is yet to be arranged.
Laurentiu Reghecampf insists his players are feeling no pressure to perform as they go in search of a fourth win against high-flying Al Wasl that would maintain their 100 per cent start to the season.
The Clarets sit top of the Arabian Gulf League table with nine points from three games but face arguably their sternest test so far as they travel to Dubai to take on free-scoring Al Wasl – who have notched 14 goals in their first five games in all competitions.
The Cheetahs are unbeaten in that run but sit two points behind Wahda in second after an opening day 2-2 AGL draw at Al Ain.
Despite a positive start, Romanian Reghecampf was keen to point out the season has only just started.
“Nothing is happening at this stage of the season,” he said ahead of the Wasl game.
“We have a lot of games to come. If we want to be at the top we have to play every game very seriously.
“For us there is no pressure. If you want to do anything, for us it’s very simple, we have to play every game like it’s our last game, give everything, play nice football and I hope for a good result. But it’s not pressure. No-one on the team feels pressure.
“We’ve only played three games, we have a lot of games to play. I hope after this game we will be happy. Every game is difficult for us. If we beat Al Wasl we cannot say we are going to win the championship.”
Rodolfo Arruabarrena knows Cheetahs fans are hungry for a first league title in 11 years, and first in the professional era, and the Argentine hopes he can make their dreams come true this season.
“The Al Wasl fans always have great hope for the tournament, they love their team a lot and wish to return to the podium again,” said the former La Albiceleste international.
“I feel good and I hope that I will spend time with the players to achieve their aspirations and dreams this season.
‘We face a strong team in Al Wahda that ranks among the strongest in the league, and we enter the game to achieve victory and provide an outstanding performance that the fans who support us can enjoy.”
Elsewhere, Jose Peseiro is adamant Sharjah are better than their 10th position suggests as they head to struggling Hatta looking for a first win in five games in all competitions this season.
The King have just one point from three AGL games and are looking to halt a two-game losing run against opponents who made Macedonian Gjoko Hadzievski the league’s first managerial casualty last week after the Tornado lost all three opening games to sit rock bottom of the table.
“The results do not reflect the level of the team and we deserve to be in a better position than the current one we are in,” said Portuguese Peseiro whose side showed tremendous spirit to rescue a 3-3 draw in the Arabian Gulf Cup against Shabab Al Ahli Dubai on Saturday having been 2-0 down and seen goalkeeper Ahmed Dida sent off with the score goalless.
“We will change the shape of the team in the coming days for the better.
“The spirit was clear in the previous game and that’s what I always ask my players to show to the team, the club and the fans.”
Defender Ryan McGowan and midfielder Cesar Pinares are back after playing in World Cup qualifiers for Australia and Chile respectively, but their inclusion is not guaranteed.
Henk ten Cate, meanwhile, is happy his players have silenced their early-season critics following a morale-boosting 2-1 win over fierce foes Al Ain in the AG Cup last weekend.
The champions, who have lost their last two in the league, have looked a shadow of the side that stormed to the AGL title last season in the opening few weeks. But Ten Cate feels they have turned a corner.
“I think the team has proved that they can work hard like last year,” said the Dutchman, who takes his side to Al Dhafra tomorrow.
“I said previously the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The chain was really strong against Al Ain, we are one, united. We bounced back from the Al Nasr defeat against a good opponent.
“Al Ain are a very good team but we made it very difficult for them, not giving them space in the centre.
“I think we did very well to win because if you don’t people keep asking about what happened to Al Jazira, what’s happened to the players.
“And now everyone falls silent and we can concentrate on the next game, which is against Al Dhafra and again another difficult opponent. We will play with the same desire to win.”