Al Jazira have commenced their preparations for the upcoming season after departing for the Netherlands on their summer training camp on Saturday morning.
The club flew from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Amsterdam, from where they will travel to Wageningen to set up camp until July 31. They will then travel to Oosterbeek before concluding their camp on August 9.
It is the second consecutive year that Jazira will tour the Netherlands and the camp is expected to play an important part for the team to build on their fitness and work on tactical strategies ahead of the start of the new Arabian Gulf League season.
Fares Jumaa, Sebastien Siani, Saif Khalfan and new signing Sultan Al Ghaferi were among the first-team players that travelled to Europe. The prolific Brazilian striker Keno, who was signed on a loan from the Egyptian club Pyramids FC, will join the team directly at the camp.
Eight first-team players including club captain Ali Khaseif, prolific striker Ali Mabkhout and exciting playmaker Khalfan Mubarak will join the team on July 22 after wrapping up their international duty with the UAE national team.
Five academy players are also travelling with the first team players who will make up the 27-man squad in the Netherlands.
The players will be aiming to step up their fitness after undertaking medical tests back in the UAE capital following the summer break and return to pre-season.
The summer camp will provide another opportunity for new head coach Jurgen Streppel to assess his new players and work on tactics with the club set to play a number of friendlies.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi will play friendly matches during the three-week camp, which will end on August 10 before flying back to Abu Dhabi.
Jazira kick off their 2019/20 season in August when they face promoted Khorfakkan in the Arabian Gulf Cup on August 22. The Pride of Abu Dhabi will then open their AGL campaign against Al Dhafra on September 19.
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Despite having recently celebrated his 36th birthday and enduring a torrid 2018/19 campaign, both individually and collectively, Ismail Ahmed admits he has “tremendous enthusiasm” to help Al Ain win more trophies.
The veteran UAE centre-back regressed badly last season as the years appeared to catch up with both him and his Boss centre-back partner Mohanad Salem. Individual errors became prevalent in their performances – particularly Ahmed, whose lowest ebb came when he suffered the ignominy of being sent off for elbowing an opponent in the UAE’s Asian Cup semi-final defeat in January.
At club level there was the high of reaching December’s FIFA Club World Cup final on home soil, where the Boss were beaten by Spanish giants Real Madrid 4-1 in the final in Abu Dhabi.
But the domestic campaign ended in failure as Al Ain slumped to a fourth-placed finish. They failed to emerge from the AFC Champions League group stage for the first time since 2013 and have to negotiate a play-off to qualify for next year’s tournament – fail and it would be the first time in eight years they won’t have qualified for the continental tournament.
But Ahmed – who has lifted two Arabian Gulf League titles, two President’s Cups, two UAE Super Cups and one Arabian Gulf Cup, not to mention been to one Champions League final and one semi-final in his 11 years with the club – is confident going forward.
“Let me thank the Al Ain fans for their continued support of me and strong support for the team in all circumstances,” said the man who turned 36 earlier this month.
“I am proud to be part of this Al Ain family, I have sincere love for this great club.
“I lived happy moments and contributed to the championships and numerous achievements and I have also lived as well with my team in difficult circumstances during the 11 years I spent at the club.
“None of these moments can fall out of my memory. I have a tremendous enthusiasm to contribute with my team to win more tournaments.”
The Morocco-born defender, who arrived in the Garden City in 2008, was curiously offered a lengthy new deal in September last year, extending his contract until 2024, although Ahmed revealed he has taking initial steps into coaching by obtaining his AFC coaches’ C licence.
He added: “I entered on the advice of close friends. I have great ambitions and am committed to the journey in the world of football even after my retirement as a player.”
Despite their escapades at the Club World Cup, 2018/19 was a disruptive season for Al Ain and AGL sides, with the league starting in the baking August heat in order to accommodate both that and the Asian Cup.
The Boss went into a tailspin after their Los Blancos meeting, winning just five of their ensuing 21 in all competitions. Former Villarreal and Real Betis manager Juan Carlos Garrido was unable to arrest a slide that began with talisman Omar Abdulrahman’s defection to Al Hilal last summer, with coach Zoran Mamic soon following suit. Al Ain’s season seemed doomed from the start.
“Certainly the success and the circumstances that accompanied the team and the lack of technical stability and injury factor was one of the reasons that made it difficult for us to appear at a good level locally and continental,” said Ahmed.
“But we defended the name of the club honorably in the Club World Cup. Criticism does not infuriate me at all because I see perspective so I am working to modify my status and improve my level, especially for the fans.
“Always the defensive line are responsible for mistakes, and there are those who are critical of us. But I wish to reconcile in the upcoming season and hope we can achieve the aspirations of the club and the happiness of the fans.”
Despite their woes last term, new boss Ivan Leko has got off to a bright start this summer with a number of eye-catching moves in the transfer market.
Algerian winger Abderrahmane Meziane and highly-rated Togo forward Kodjo Fo-Doh have joined Dh25-million rated forward Caio Canedo, impressively acquired from fellow AGL side Al Wasl. Domestically, talented midfielder Mohamed Jamal has been snapped up from Al Jazira while Mohammed Helal joins from Ajman.
The club are currently on a pre-season camp in Austria where Ahmed says he has been encouraged by the Boss’ bright start to the summer.
“Al Ain, in every season, seeks to provide strong levels of competition for all tournaments, whatever the circumstances experienced by the team the previous season.
“Today we are in an excellent position with the players signing new contracts and the deals concluded to strengthen the team. Certainly the team cannot stand on one player or two or even five alone.”
The UAE are poised to rack up plenty of air miles after Wednesday’s draw for the second round of World Cup 2022 qualifiers delivered a quartet of south-east Asian nations.
New boss Bert van Marwijk must successfully plot a path in Group G past Thailand (who dealt a terminal blow in the 2018 process), improving Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia from September 10-June 9, 2020.
With only the eight pool winners and four-best runners-up set to advance into the third-and-final stage, the task to secure a second-ever entry for a ‘Golden Generation’ losing its sheen is not without complication.
Here are the main talking points from the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:
STATE OF PLAY
Whenever Australia and Everton great Tim Cahill is involved, World Cup pain, seemingly, follows for the UAE.
At a critical juncture in the previous running, the veteran forward’s cute finish earned a deflating late win for the Socceroos in Abu Dhabi. This time, the now-retired record breaker was picking out the balls to give Van Marwijk – his eventual boss at last summer’s global tournament – a serious headache.
Judged on sheer difficulty of opposition, the Whites would have struggled to have it much harder even as top seeds. Group C – with Iran, Iraq and Bahrain – is the only other one to contain three 2019 Asian Cup knockout entrants.
Added stress for the UAE is provided by extensive travel. Each away game will require round trips of more than 10,000 kilometres, eating into recovery and preparation.
The same issues will hamper the visitors from the Far East in the Middle East. But their vagaries increase opportunity for the unexpected.
The UAE also drew Malaysia at this point for 2018. Those matches act as a perfect barometer of the binary impact these issues present.
A humiliating 10-0 defeat at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium for the Malayan Tigers was followed by a tense 2-1 triumph for the relieved visitors to Shah Alam Stadium.
With their squad influx and a fresh coach on-board, the Whites are – at best – slender favourites for top spot.
NOT SO ‘GOLDEN’ NOW?
With two AFC Players of the Year and a contender for the continent’s best striker being overseen by the exalted manager who led Saudi Arabia back to the global arena, the UAE should have been a team to avoid in the midweek ceremony.
Especially when they were semi-finalists at the Asian Cup, for the second-successive tournament, little more than six months ago.
They also enter the 2022 system ranked higher by FIFA (67) than they did for 2018 (68).
Yet, Thailand and Vietnam will relish their presence this time.
Both POYs – Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club forward Ahmed Khalil and Al Hilal playmaker Omar Abdulrahman – have been ravaged by injury in recent years and no other side convinced less upon their journey to the continent’s last-four. Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout is also arrowing in on his 29th birthday.
The feeling that 2018 was the missed chance is difficult to shake.
Van Marwijk also acrimoniously departed the Saudis after qualification was assured in September 2017 and will be nearly 70 if the UAE make it into March 2022’s expected date for the inter-confederation play-offs.
The beaten World Cup 2010 finalist is, however, their greatest asset.
His passion, dedication and aptitude has been on show throughout the first of two training camps before September 10’s second-round opener in Malaysia.
Responsibility now lies on the senior players to ease indoctrination into his 4-2-3-1 formation and wider methodology. This process is helped by Khalil being present in Salzburg, Austria, this week after an influential and prolific end to 2018/19.
Talents of rare repute also exist in Al Wasl’s 17-year-old Scottish/Emirati forward Ali Saleh, now Al Ain centre-back Mohammed Ali Shaker and Sharjah centre midfielder Majed Suroor.
Regeneration is well under way.
THAI’D UP IN KNOTS?
It would, however, be a critical error to downplay Thailand and Vietnam.
The UAE’s long-held dream of making World Cup 2018 was effectively ended by a 1-1 draw at the Thais’ steamy Rajamangala Stadium in June 2017.
A trio of their players – miniature attacking midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan and defender Theerathon Bunmathan – are prominent J1 League imports. This Japanese connection has been strengthened by Wednesday’s official hiring of the Samurai Blue’s World Cup 2018 boss Akira Nishino.
Vietnam are a new hotbed of player production. Forward Nguyen Cong Phuong has just inked a loan deal with Belgium top-flight outfit Sint-Truiden, while Hanoi FC’s Nguyen Quang Hai claimed Most Valuable Player after their remarkable triumph in last winter’s AFF Suzuki Cup.
Elsewhere, Malaysia will hope rampant investment in 2019 AFC Champions League debutants Johor Darul Ta’zim creates a sizeable improvement in the underperforming national team’s fortunes.
Fellow geographical giants Indonesia are back in the mix after a FIFA ban for government interference ruled them out of the 2018 circuit.
An exacting section. But one Van Marwijk will back himself to navigate.