Al Jazira boss Henk ten Cate is convinced Persepolis’ infamous, 80,000-capacity Azadi Stadium will bring out the best in his “crazy” team as they bid to seal a historic AFC Champions League quarter-final berth.
Teenage defender Khalifa Al Hammadi’s 96th-minute header on Monday sealed a dramatic 3-2 first-leg win at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. The Pride of Abu Dhabi now face the ominous task of completing the job next Monday in Tehran.
Home for the 11-time Persian Gulf Pro League winners is Asia’s most-feared ground. But Ten Cate is sure his callow troops’ experience of narrowly losing to Real Madrid in December’s sold-out Club World Cup semi-final will stand them in good stead.
“We are used to playing here [the UAE] in front of hardly any spectators,” said the 63-year-old Dutchman. “But when we have spectators, the team makes the best performances.
“During the Club World Cup, we had people watching us and we did really well.
“This young team is capable of doing crazy things.
“It is not a guarantee, I know. But I can tell you one thing, we are ready.
“We will fight until we die for a good result. This is the quality of this team.”
Fine second-half goals from UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout and Brazilian forward Romarinho cancelled out Iran striker Ali Alipour’s headed 42nd-minute opener for the visitors. A controversial, retaken penalty from substitute Godwin Mensha then put Persepolis level, before Al Hammadi’s first career goal sparked riotous celebrations in the capital.
Jazira have suffered both on and off-field strife this term. This made Ten Cate even happier about the victory.
He said: “Don’t forget, we have a pretty inexperienced team. We have a lot of young players.
“I am very proud of this team, very proud.
“If you think of our situation for the entire season and then think this team is capable of doing this? You can only do one thing and that is applaud.
“It is the only thing you can do after all the problems we faced.”
The final battle for places in the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League kicks off on Wednesday with the promotion play-offs’ first legs.
The impending return to a 14-team competition saw the traditional, two-up-two-down format parked. In its place on May 9 and 13, the bottom two from the top flight are set to meet the third and fourth-placed finishers from First Division League – champions Bani Yas and Ittihad Kalba automatically secured their advancement during the regular season.
Second-bottom Emirates Club will look to maintain their AGL status for a sixth-successive campaign when they battle fourth-top Al Hamriyah. But the majority of attention is focused on Diego Maradona-less Fujairah’s quest to go up for the first time since 2015/16 when they scrap with Hatta.
A soap opera between the Wolves and the Argentina icon saw them part ways within hours of April 27’s failure to secure an automatic berth. The club then prematurely announced a shock one-year contract renewal three days later, with negotiations definitively breaking down last Thursday.
Ex-Dibba Al Fujairah, Al Dhafra and UAE Under-23 coach Dr Abdullah Mesfer has stepped into the breach for third-placed Fujairah. But bottom-placed Hatta’s chairman Ali Mohammed bin Obaid Al Badawi quelled talk that this chaos would be a distraction.
“Our focus is on the game, not on the coach’s identity,” he told Al Bayan. “This is with respect to all coaches, whether it is Diego Maradona or Dr Abdullah Mesfer.”
Hatta’s hopes are harmed by the likely continued absence of 11-goal leading marksman Samuel Rosa.
Meanwhile, Emirates will need to defy a wretched run of form that has seen them accrue just one win from their last 11 matches in all competitions.
Milesi, 25, departed Riyadh on a free transfer this summer after two outstanding seasons since his procurement from Danubio. The Uruguayan won a pair of Saudi Professional Leagues, one King Cup of Champions, was defeated in the 2017 AFC Champions League final and scored six times in 59 appearances.
These achievements saw a number of Middle Eastern sides clamour for his signature when granted a release last month by the Crescent’s new management. But despite the Western Knights finishing one spot and one point above the relegation play-off places in 2017/18, they managed to convince the coveted free agent to ink a three-year deal with them.
“After a strong competition with local and other clubs, Al-Dhafra signed a three-season contract with Nicolas Milesi,” they tweeted.
Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida and Morocco centre-back Issam El Adoua are the only foreigners with the potential to be retained next term.
In the top flight since their January arrivals, Uzbekistan forward Igor Sergeev struck once in 10 matches and Brazilian counterpart Fernando Viana contributed no goals in 11 run-outs.
A change of coach is also likely.
Macedonian Gjoko Hadzievski completed his mid-season task of saving the club from relegation. This is not likely to earn him a renewal, with 2017/18 SPL Coach of the Year Vuk Rasovic, of Al Faisaly, tipped to replace him.