Asian competition is now key for the Pride of Abu Dhabi after a miserable defence of their Arabian Gulf League-crown. Wesley Sneijder’s Al Gharafa were beaten 3-2 in last month’s enlivening Group A-opener to end a 15-match winless spell on the continent, before a profligate display at Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah led to a 2-1 defeat.
A double header against pointless and goalless Iranians Tractor Sazi begins on Monday night at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Ten Cate urged his second-placed troops to leave nothing on the table.
“Very important for both teams,” said the ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant about the clash.
“For us, an important match to keep participating for top spot and for them to stay in the tournament. It will be very tight. I’ve seen them twice, they’re a good team and I think they were unlucky.
“The game in Qatar [versus Gharafa] was amazing as they were better than their opponent and lost 3-0. It was like us, we were the best team there [at Al Ahli] and lost 2-1.”
Jazira’s cause has not been helped by the suspension of influential Morocco midfielder Mbark Boussoufa. They also lost both group games to Tractor in 2016 by a combined score of 5-0.
📸📸— نادي الجزيرة (@AlJazira_uae) March 3, 2018
فخر أبوظبي يواصل تحضيراته لمواجهة تراكتور سازي في #دوري_أبطال_آسيا
حيث يخوض مهمته الوطنية الثالثة في إستاد محمد بن زايد بأبوظبي الاثنين #مع_الفخر_لأجل_الوطن
Training for @TheAFCCL match this Monday in Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium pic.twitter.com/9RAp3HoXit
The Red Wolves travel to Abu Dhabi on the back of their own domestic travails. They currently sit 10th in the Persian Gulf Pro League – a descent from 2017/18’s third.
“It will not be the end [if we don’t win], but it will be really difficult to qualify for the next round,” said coach Ertugrul Saglam, an ex-Turkey international striker.
“We don’t have to win this match, but we have to take four points from these next two games.”
Persepolis v Al Wasl
Persepolis boss Branko Ivankovic has warned pointless Al Wasl they plan to exorcise their pain from derby defeat when the sides meet in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
The Persian Gulf Pro League holders went down 1-0 on Thursday against Esteghlal. They now face a weakened Wasl team in Group C, for whom stars such as Fabio De Lima haven’t travelled.
“It’s natural that failure in a derby is never good,” said ex-Al Wahda boss Ivankovic. “But this game is more important than the derby.”
Thursday’s pulsating summit meeting saw the Boss race into a two-goal lead, before Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak’s pair of long-range drives levelled things up at 2-2. But the UAE’s most-decorated club remained unflustered as they chase a first trophy since
August 2015, a quartet of further strikes following against bedraggled opponents who eventually finished with nine men.
A four-point lead with four games left is significant. Yet, 34-year-old Ahmed knows huge hurdles are left to clear.
“Al Wahda is a great team and we respect this club and its fans,” said the three-time AGL champion.
“Losses in football are always coming, regardless of the outcome of this confrontation. But the most important thing for us was to get the three points and win.
“It is only an important step along the way on our challenge to compete for the title and we still have four matches left. Each one will be more important than the other, so I demand the fans provide greater support in the coming stages.”
Priorities for Zoran Mamic’s men now immediately switch to bringing life into their 2018 AFC Champions League-campaign. Both matches in Group D have been drawn thus far, meaning victory is a must when ex-coach Winfried Schafer brings Iran’s Esteghlal to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday.
“Winning and losing is normal in the football world,” said Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat, who produced a fine assist for Marcus Berg’s opener versus Wahda and later scored a seventh league goal of a productive mid-season loan from Misr lel-Makkasa.
“We lost in the 17th round to Sharjah and we returned in the last round against Al Wahda, but the most important thing is to always win the three points.
“The fans in the stands gave the players a strong motivation on the pitch to deliver the best performance and I want to give a few words of thanks to the fans of the club.
“The match against Al Wahda is over for us and we are thinking only about facing Esteghlal.”
Here are our star performers:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Marcelo Cirino (Al Nasr)
Most players would have cracked under the pressure. But the Brazilian forward kept his cool twice from the penalty spot to seal the spoils from yet another heated Bur Dubai-derby versus Al Wasl.
Cirino has proven an excellent pick-up on loan from Flamengo, striking eight times in 15 top-flight run-outs from out wide. His most-recent pair will live long in the memory of the Nasr faithful.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Marcus Berg (Al Ain)
After a tense opening to this summit meeting between bitter Abu Dhabi rivals, a goal of supreme quality was conjured by champions-elect Al Ain.
Omar Abdulrahman set if off out wide in style with some nonchalant step-overs and a back-heeled flick, with the ball soon making its way to Egypt playmaker Hussein El Shahat. A pass of pure precision then sent Berg straight through the middle and he provided a killer finish.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Mahdi Ali (Shabab Al Ahli)
A return to club management has not been easy going for Ali – not by a long stretch.
The ex-UAE boss finally had a night to savour on Wednesday.
Champions Al Jazira appeared set to inflict a fourth top-flight defeat of his tenure, but his players – many of whom he nurtured through various Whites set-ups – finally produced for him. Shabab Al Ahli swarmed over Jazira, Saeed Jassem and Mohammed Marzooq winning it at the death.
What’s happening at the bottom?
With only four games left of the season, it’ll take some implosion from here for Al Ain to not claim a first AGL title since 2014/15.
In contrast, it is a mystery what’s going to happen in the relegation battle – and that isn’t just because three teams are separated by one point. There has still been no official decision by the UAE Football Association about whether 2018/19 will feature 12 or 14 teams.
Will the usual two go down, or will there be a repeat of 2012/13’s play-offs? The lack of clarity is cruel.