Coach Abel Braga says he will not accept the shambolic defensive performances that saw Al Jazira fall short of the Arabian Gulf League title last season.
Jazira were the AGL’s top scorers, netting 66 times in 26 games, scoring four more than champions Al Ain, but only only relegated Ittihad Kalba and Ajman shipped more at the other end.
In the returning Braga’s first trophy-laden stint at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, between 2008 and 2011, the Brazilian’s side struck the perfect balance between attacking football and a stingy rearguard.
And the well-travelled 62-year-old admits the first job he faces tightening up at the back without compromising his side’s free-scoring ways.
“I spoke with the players about last season and the goal difference. I am not happy and they need to improve,” Braga said ahead of Jazira’s league opener against Al Wasl Friday.
“I’m not blaming them but I will not accept the same this season. We lost the title, but how did we not get the title when we scored more goals than Al Ain?
“We scored enough goals but we also conceded many goals. If we can get the defence to match the attack then we can win the title.”
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Brazilian Braga is back at the club after four years away. His first spell brought unprecedented success, Jazira winning the AGL title and President’s Cup double in 2010/11 in his swansong campaign.
Those triumphs brought huge popularity with the fans, and Braga pleaded with Jazira’s supporters to provide similar backing once again.
“I cannot promise the title but I can promise the fans we will not be far from it, maybe one or two points,” he said.
“The good thing about the players is that a lot of them are the same group as was here before, like Ali Mabkhout, Abdulla Moussa, Ali Khaseif, Juma Abdulla, so this is good and they are happy to see me back.
— AlJazira FC Official (@AlJazira_uae) August 19, 2015
“The fans kept asking about me even though I was not here. I’m back now and I need them to be back too and supporting the team. I want them to come back and see if Braga has got older after four years.”
Braga said Wasl, resurgent under Argentine Gabriel Calderon in the second half of last season, will provide a stern test as both play similar football.
“I saw a couple of Al Wasl games on the internet and but I don’t know much about Al Wasl now. I saw Al Wasl when Maradona was manager,” he said. “There is another Argentine coach now so it is a similar style and it is also similar to our style. It’s going to be an important game for both teams. I hope we can win the three points.”
Al Ain defensive midfielder Lee Myung-joo has no intention of resting on his laurels when the champions begin their defence on Friday night against Al Dhafra.
Lee, 25, proved a smart recruit last term after his $5 million purchase from Pohang Steelers. He made 23 top-flight appearance, playing a key role as the Boss cruised to the 2014/15 title.
But speaking before the opener at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium versus the Western Knights, the Yeungnam University-youth product insists he can step up another level.
He said: “From what I did last year, I know I can do better. It was not enough. This year, I will do more to improve myself and to win more trophies for the team. I am also hoping to see more fans in the stadium, their support always helps us.”
Al Ain possessed the meanest defence last season but have proven surprisingly porous prior to the top-flight kick-off. Including last Saturday’s 4-2 Arabian Gulf Super Cup triumph against Al Nasr, they have let in 12 goals during six games.
This period has included the settling in of new foreign trio Emmanuel Emenike, Fellipe Bastos and Ryan Babel. Coach Zlatko Dalic believes his team would become firmer with more time spent together.
He said: “I know we have conceded many, many goals. But if you look, last season we had the best defence in the Arabian Gulf League [19 conceded during 26 matches].
“More training and matches will give more confidence to the players and let them get to know each other better. We can solve this issue.”
Dhafra provided tricky opponents for the Boss last term, claiming a 1-1 draw thanks to star striker Makhete Diop’s wonder goal. He said: “It will not be easy for us, but we will fight to get three points. In the first home game, it is important to win and gain confidence.
“Al Dhafra is not easy, we know what happened last season and they have quality players like Makhete Diop. But we will do our best.”
New boy Emenike – the replacement for star striker Asamoah Gyan after his sale to Shanghai SIPG – is expected to start despite coming off with a knock in the Super Cup.
Star summer recruit Jorge Valdivia is set to arrive at Al Wahda on Friday, a day after they begin their 2015/16 Arabian Gulf League campaign at newly-promoted Dibba Al Fujairah.
Valdivia, 31, agreed a two-year deal last month but was unable to free himself from Brazilian club Palmeiras until his contract expired on Monday.
This has delayed the Chile playmaker’s return to the UAE, where he previously starred for Al Ain from 2008-10.
Speaking before his competitive bow with the Clarets on Thursday night, new boss Javier Aguirre was confident his squad had sufficient quality to cope without their eye-catching addition.
“From the beginning, I understood Valdivia’s relationship with Palmeiras ended on August 17,” the former Atletico Madrid and Mexico coach said.
“He has to arrange some personal things, so he will arrive [in the UAE] on August 21. It has not affected our preparations. I am really happy with the team I have. Valdivia is coming and will arrive. I spoke with him already, sending him plans – we are under way.”
Wahda are determined to improve on last term’s disappointing fourth-placed finish and return to the AFC Champions League.
Opponents Dibba lifted the UAE Division 1 Group A title and have recruited well, veteran centre forward Boris Kabi their most high-profile buy.
“The management of Dibba Al Fujairah contracted some good foreign players,” Aguirre said. “We respect the opponent, but what concerns us is the performance of our team only.”
Wahda are expected to hand an AGL debut to former Arsenal midfielder Denilson, though UAE goalkeeper Adel Al Hosani is a doubt.
Legendary striker Ismail Matar believes under Aguirre the Clarets are well positioned to fight for a first top-flight title since 2009/10. He said: “We as players are trying our best as always and want to capture the Arabian Gulf League championship this season.”