An Al Clasico for the ages, well from victors Al Jazira’s point of view it certainly was. The ravenous hosts ripped Al Ain apart in a dominant performance that begged the question – how have they become so far removed from the Arabian Gulf League title picture in recent weeks?
The Pride of Abu Dhabi prevailed in the biggest game in UAE club football, and it was a victory that never looked in doubt once they roared into the lead after just three minutes.
Khalfan Mubarak sliced apart the Boss at the back, his defence-splitting ball reaching Ali Mabkhout. The UAE marvel composed himself before teeing up the onrushing Ernest Asante, who checked his run before firing low beyond Khalid Essa.
It was 2-0 after 28 minutes when Mabkhout – who had minutes earlier wasted a glorious opportunity – converted a far more difficult chance after being teed up by Mubarak.
Even when he hobbled off with a pulled hamstring, Jazira continued their dominance, replacement Nacer Barazite curling high beyond Essa after more good movement from Mabkhout.
Ismail Ahmed’s thumping free header from a corner gave the Boss a glimmer of hope before the break, but three minutes into the second half, the hosts’ three-goal advantage was restored when Asante reached another laser beam throughball from Sebastien Siani, neatly nutmegging Mohanad Salem before firing past Essa.
Mabkhout rounded off the scoring when Barazite returned the favour from him to sweep home his second.
An ‘Al Clasico’ that was full of class from Jazira, but one steeped in calamity for Al Ain. Here’s our take:
MISFIRING MABKHOUT ANSWERS HIS CRITICS
Such is the esteem Ali Mabkhout is held in by Jazira fans and those who generally watch UAE club and international football – the prolific striker is considered in a slump when he’s scored ONLY three goals in last six games.
But after the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s title hopes effectively disappeared following defeat to Sharjah on Friday, the striker, who went scoreless, came in for criticism. He answered those critics in sumptuous style with a man-of-the match performance here – bagging two goals and also creating two.
Mabkhout was instrumental in the opener, an intelligent run attracted Mubarak’s attention and he released his UAE colleague. He held it up carefully and teed up Asante to fire in. The dissenting voices might have grown louder when he missed a guilt-edged chance to make it 2-0, racing onto another sublime throughball from Abdalla Ramadan. He skewed his shot horribly wide when a player of his ilk and deadly finishing ability would gobble up that chance normally.
Minutes later though he stylishly doubled Jazira’s lead and in far more difficult fashion. Mubarak was again the architect – his laser beam vision spotted the run of Mabkhout who although got a slice of fortune when the ball ricocheted between the legs of Ismail Ahmed, was clinical as he dummied Mohanad Salem before opening up and curling high beyond Khalid Essa.
He then teed up Barazite for a third goal but luckily VAR came to Al Ain’s rescue. As if seething because of that, the same duo combined minutes later to put Jazira 3-1 up. They cut through the Boss at will with Mabkhout slipping in Barazite who curled into motionless Essa’s bottom corner.
As their dominance continued after the break, Mabkhout then rounded off an emphatic win when Barazite returned the favour for him to sweep in a fifth.
His double took him level with Al Wahda’s Sebastian Tagliabue atop the AGL’s leading scorers chart. Some slump he’s enduring.
AL AIN ELITE ON A RAPID DECLINE
One of the most one-sided ‘Al Clasicos’ in Arabian Gulf League history was bookmarked by a rampaging performance from Jazira’s rising young stars as Al Ain’s established elite continued to display worrying signs of decline.
Veteran Sweden striker Marcus Berg – who appeared at both Euro 2016 and last summer’s World Cup in Russia – must have been licking his lips when he read the names on the Jazira teamsheet and saw a back four containing 21-year-old Mohammed Al Attas and 20-year-old Khalifa Al Hammadi in central defence.
The 6ft powerhouse might have been anticipating a field day in front of goal, but in truth the lack of cohesiveness behind him led to him being isolated all match and starved of service as the speed and energy in Jazira’s pressing and overall game left Al Ain’s midfield constantly chasing shadows and their creaking defence splitting wide open at the seams.
While youthful exuberance in Jazira’s defence should ordinarily have led to the Boss enjoying superiority, it was the worryingly rapid decline of Al Ain stalwarts Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem that should cause the most consternation.
The celebrated duo that have been an iconic fixture of the UAE senior team for the best part of the last decade have shown plenty of signs of decline in the last 12 months or so. But whereas they have come back to defy their critics on more than one occasion – Ahmed’s goal threatened to do so once again – the ease at which they were opened up time and time again by Jazira’s relentless and ruthless forays forward should set alarm bells ring around the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Ahmed is 35, Salem 34. Bandar Al Ahbabi, at right-back, is 29, as is Mohammed Fayez. The central defensive duo – long considered rocks – are now ramshackle. It is time for new seeds to be sown in the Garden City.
PRIDE OF ABU DHABI SHOULD BE JAZZED BY THEIR FUTURE
The championing of Al Jazira’s academy is no secret, they have long been one of the few UAE clubs to truly push their emerging stars into the limelight.
It is a strategy that former coach Henk ten Cate relentlessly pursued – sometimes out of necessity due to crippling injuries, but mostly because he is a moulder of men and comes from a country that has always prided itself on its next generation.
Under the Dutchman’s guidance Jazira brought through the likes of Mubarak – who now holds equal standing at club level with the iconic Mabkhout – Mohamed Jamal, Salem Al Eedi and Sultan Al Shamsi to name but a few.
But whereas these players – Mubarak in-particular – are thriving, it is the next class that are being given their chance under compatriot Damien Hertog and appear to have shimmering futures.
We all know about Al Attas from his performances at the 2017 FIFA Club World Cup. A player brought into the fold out of necessity by Ten Cate for his ability to fill myriad positions, he is now truly looking the part at both club and international level. Al Attas and Ramadan are both 21, while 20-year-old Al Hammadi has been a revelation this season, with emerging striker Zayed Al Ameri, 22, also forcing his way through.
Al Ain – champions of the AGL and in second place before this game – were mercilessly beaten at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium with Al Attas and Al Hammadi anchoring the defence, restricting the impact of 69-times capped Sweden international Berg.
They didn’t even flinch, while Ramadan is settling nicely into Jazira’s midfield. Ten Cate started things in motion and Jazira’s academy starlets are continuing to move forward.
Marcus Berg toiled and tried pretty much everything as Al Ain succumbed to a damaging 5-1 defeat against fierce rivals Al Jazira in the biggest game in UAE football – Al Clasico.
It was far from a classic for the Boss, though, who were rattled from a blistering start from the hosts who took a 3-0 lead. Ismail Ahmed’s bullet header on the stroke of half-time reduced the deficit to 3-1 after Ernest Asante, Ali Mabkhout and Nacer Barazite had put the Pride of Abu Dhabi 3-0 ahead.
The Boss, hoping to keep hold of second spot in the Arabian Gulf League behind leaders Sharjah as well as clinging to feint hopes of retaining their title, went further behind after Asante scored his second, while Mabkhout completed the scoring at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
We kept an eye on the performance of Sweden international Berg.
GOT RIGHT – THORN IN THE SIDE
On what was a difficult night for the champions, at least Berg emptied everything, including the kitchen sink, from his locker that he could throw at the rampant hosts.
He was always the focal point of crosses from the flanks, a good tactic from the visitors in an attempt to fluster a youthful backline that included 21-year-old Mohammed Al Attas and Khalifa Al Hammadi, 20.
It was a good ploy and Berg, at times, did hassle the duo with his size and strength, but he was too often isolated and starved of service, looking to conjure something out of nothing.
GOT WRONG – FINISHING
You wouldn’t say many of his chances were clear cut as Al Ain pumped high balls into the box hoping to utilise their frontman’s 6ft frame, but on another night, certainly, the Swedish striker would have hoped to have put at least two chances away.
A weak shot, a couple of tame headers and a lack of poise at crucial times littered his evening.
That’s not to say his profligacy was the root cause of Al Ain’s woes, far from it. But if he had found the back of the net a few times from his glut of chances, the Boss might well have found their way back into the game.
12th min: First sight of goal for Al Ain, a cross comes in and Jamal Maroof sends a free header over from six yards
42nd min: Are the Boss back in it? Totally against the run of play, Al Ain get a corner out of nothing and Ahmed is left all alone to plant a header past Ali Khaseif from Caio’s delivery
43rd min: Berg runs clear of the Jazira defence but his weak prod is straight at Khaseif
65th min: Bandar Al Ahbabi delivers but Berg directs his header only into the grateful arms of Khaseif
70th min: Another cross is aimed at Berg who climbs high but sends his header onto the roof of, rather than into, the Jazira net
75th min: Ball is floated in to Berg who’s all alone but can’t gather to get a shot in on goal
Jazira welcome second-placed and reigning Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium foran Abu Dhabi derby renowned as the biggest club game in UAE football.
The hosts aim to bounce back following last week’s 3-2 defeat to AGL leaders Sharjah.
With only four points separating both sides, Hertog expects another close encounter against their rivals and believes the home fans can play a vital role by being their ‘12th man’.
“Our home fans were disappointed by the result against Sharjah but we want to amend that by producing a winning performance at our own stadium,” Hertog said during his pre-match press conference.
“Our home fans are fantastic and they will be very important for this match especially as it’s an Abu Dhabi derby.
“Football is a team sport meaning that fans, players and coaches are in it together. We are all happy when we win but we are also sad when we lose.
“Our fans can give us an extra boost which will certainly help inspire my players even more to win the game. We all want to make them happy and proud and getting the victory in this Abu Dhabi derby is something that we are aiming for.”
Both teams also go into the clash almost certain in the knowledge that defeat for either would likely end their title hopes. Jazira, in fourth, are 12 points behind unbeaten Sharjah while the Boss are eight adrift with eight games remaining.
“Sharjah was a tough opponent, but Al Ain will be bigger test as they are the defending champions,” added Hertog.
Jazira will be without five players including defender Fares Juma (suspension) and attacking midfielder Leonardo (injured). However, Hertog believes there’s plenty of quality at his disposal that can help cause Al Ain problems.
“There will always be suspensions and injuries but Al Jazira have a strong, talented squad and not just 11 players. These absences are an opportunity for other players to step up and show their quality and help the team,” he said.
Meanwhile, midfielder Abdullah Ramadan believes his team-mates will give everything they’ve got to beat Al Ain.
“It will be a tough match against Al Ain,” said the 21-year-old Egyptian. “We have put the Sharjah defeat behind us and we know we have to play our best football against Al Ain which I’m sure we will do.”
Kick-off in Al Clasico is at 20:30.