Al Jazira coach expects UAE players to bounce back strongly to help club's challenge

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Head coach Damien Hertog is convinced his UAE national players will bounce back strongly from the Asian Cup and help maintain Al Jazira’s challenge when the Arabian Gulf League restarts this week.

After a month-long break, the club resume their campaign on Monday February 4 at home to Shabab Al Ahli where they will be aiming to build on their impressive start. Al Jazira currently sit joint-second with eight wins in 13 matches.

On Saturday, Hertog was reunited with Ali Mabkhout, Khalifa Al Hammadi, Khalfan Mubarak, Fares Juma and Ali Khaseif after they joined training following UAE’s run to the semi-finals.

Ahead of Monday’s home clash, Hertog revealed he would have no issue selecting any of those players after praising their mentality.

“We had five players from the club and not all of them were involved in all the games,” said Hertog during the pre-match press conference. “They are mentally strong and I have no doubt they will be ready when they meet up with the team. The whole team is looking forward to welcoming them back so that they can play on Monday.”

Al Jazira will be without the services of midfielder Sebastien Siani and defenders Khalifa Al Hammadi and Salim Al Eidi through suspension. Defender Mohamed Al Attas and midfielders Mohammed Jamal and Salim Abdullah are also ruled out with injury.

However, Hertog has been impressed with the work ethic in training and is confident his players can be competitive against a Shabab Al Ahli, who are three points behind Al Jazira.

“We did a lot of work in training and evaluated the first half of the season and see where we could make progress,” added the Dutchman. “I am satisfied with how the team worked and how they have improved in the last couple of weeks.”

He added: “Against Shabab Al Ahli, it is important to get the three points. I expect both teams to play to win just like how we played earlier against them in the season in the league (Al Jazira won 5-4). We have had a good first half of the season and so have they, which tells you everything about the strength of Shabab Al Ahli.”

One of the players to have played a key role for Al Jazira is Leonardo. The Brazilian attacker has scored five goals in the league this season and the 32-year-old is keen to add to his tally on Monday.

“I hope to continue playing well,” said Leonardo. “I work very hard every day to be fit and want to help my team be competitive as always. I hope we can play well in the second half of the season.

“Shabab Al Ahli will be a difficult team as they have had a good season so far. We are playing at home so I hope the fans can come and support us and hopefully we can get the three points.”

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Arabian Gulf League restarts amid losing fight for relevancy and lack of imagination

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(Twitter/@Alhilal_FC).

After 52 days away, the Arabian Gulf League returns on Monday.

There will be no great fanfare when Dibba Al Fujairah and surprise-relegation-contenders Al Wasl kick-off the second half of the campaign.

This is not, simply, because of a hangover from the Asian Cup. A tournament that ended in great disappointment on the pitch for the hosts.

That excuse is too simple, too convenient.

Instead, four weeks of transfer-market inactivity and high-profile defections among the 14 participants has added to the sense of a competition floundering in the regional fight for relevancy.

That this downwards trend has continued at a time when the Saudi Professional League (SPL) has drafted in the likes of ex-Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco, plus long-term Jose Mourinho acolyte Rui Faria and Morocco centre-back Mehdi Benatia now call the Qatar Stars League home, only adds to the sense of futility.

The desire to break even and establish fiscal responsibility in the AGL is admirable. This drive for austerity, however, appears to have chronically curbed not just ambitions, but also imaginations.

A downwards trend was established in the summer when 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, finally, bid farewell for the rapaciously ambitious SPL. Plus, only Al Nasr showed any kind of intent with the recruitment of former France midfielder Yohan Cabaye and ex-Spain striker Alvaro Negredo.

The winter market was even worse.

Club World Cup hero Zoran Mamic followed in Amoory’s footsteps by swapping AGL champions Al Ain for Al Hilal.

The Boss also sold emerging Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat to Al Ahly and saw last month’s Silver Ball winner Caio agree a free transfer to Benfica this summer. There was also the inexplicable decision from Nasr to cut Cabaye loose after only six months.

Nondescript Portuguese playmaker Ruben Ribeiro is in at Al Ain. Brazilian also-rans Samuel Rosa (Nasr to Fujairah) and Ronaldo Mendes (Fujairah to Wasl, loan cancellation) were also on the move.

In other deals, Emirates Club, as per usual, raided the outer reaches. Nasr have welcomed back Lebanon centre-back Joan Oumari and allowed new coach Benat San Jose to be reunited with Chilean forward Ronnie Fernandez.

All at a time when Giovinco, prolific Spanish striker Jonathan Soriano, Australia centre-back Milos Degenek, €10 million Romania winger Nicolae Stanciu, Faria and Benatia have begun to call the region home.

There were no such blockbusters in the AGL. But this can be excused.

What can’t is a lack of invention and creativity.

To Al Ain’s credit, strong rumours state they’ve beaten Juventus, among others, to a summer deal for rising 18-year-old Iraq forward Mohanad Ali. Dibba Al Fujairah also landed Jordan forward Yousef Al Rawashdeh for their remaining 2018/19 commitments.

These are exactly the kind of deal financially constricted clubs should be making.

Ali was a breakout star at the Asian Cup. Al Rawashdeh got two assists in three tournament run-outs.

Both impressed, both are affordably priced.

India centre-back Sandesh Jhingan, Bahrain defender Hamad Al Shamsan, Thailand midfielder Thitipan Puangchan – since hoovered up by J1 League – and Oman forward Muhsen Al Ghassani would have fitted this criteria.

Instead, an uninspired selection of journeymen pad out a depleted field in a jaded competition.

Not even witnessing if Sharjah’s surprise title bid comes to fruition, or how legendary coach Henk ten Cate fares at Al Wahda, can deflect from this unfortunate conclusion.

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Former Juventus star Paulo Sousa emerges as Al Ain target after abrupt exit of Zoran Mamic

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Portugal great Paulo Sousa has reportedly emerged as an early target for Al Ain after history making coach Zoran Mamic’s painful mid-season departure.

Mamic, 47, thanked the Boss in a lengthy Twitter post for “the amazing memories we made together” and confirmed his wildly successful two-year tenure at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium had come to an abrupt end late on Tuesday, six months before his deal’s expiry. This followed several days of fevered speculation that he will imminently be appointed by Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal, because of their ongoing failure to get Jorge Jesus to commit his future beyond June.

The ex-Croatia defender, who Al Ain claimed on Wednesday was instead “taking some rest because of the pressures experienced through management”, was poached from Riyadh’s Al Nassr in February 2017. He would go on to secure a club-first Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double last May, plus heroically lead the Boss to a 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in December’s Club World Cup showpiece in Abu Dhabi.

Portuguese newspaper A Bola stated that Sousa, 48, “has a chance to train” the Garden City-outfit. The well-travelled ex-Juventus and Borussia Dortmund midfielder has been out of work since a mutual departure was negotiated with China’s Tianjin Quanjian in October, after less than a year in charge.

August’s sale of influential Belgium centre midfielder Axel Witsel to BVB sparked a slide that saw Sousa oversee a potential relegation fight. Tianjin did, however, make the AFC Champions League quarter-finals under him.

Sousa reportedly this week rejected the chance to succeed Aitor Karanka at the Championship’s Nottingham Forest.

The suave tactician made his name at Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Leicester City at the turn of the decade. But he failed to gain promotion to the Premier League at all three, prior to embarking on a nomadic run of clubs.

This period included winning trophies at Hungary’s Videoton and Switzerland’s Basel.

If Sousa does come in at Al Ain, he’ll take over a side temporarily led by ex-Borussia Monchengladbach defender Zeljko Sopic and Ahmed Abdullah.

In a boost for the Boss, they have successfully untangled the complex contractual situation of playmaker Ruben Ribeiro and registered him as replacement for Egypt’s Hussein El Shahat in their four-player foreign quota for the second half of the campaign.

Ribeiro, 31, was one of seven Sporting Lisbon footballers to terminate his contract last June because of a training ground assault by ultras. But this status as a free agent was challenged by the Portuguese giants, preventing him playing in the CWC.

The apparent breakthrough means he will slot in for El Shahat, following last month’s $5 million sale to Al Ahly.

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