Clubs in contrasting mood meet at Al Nahyan Stadium on Monday when the UAE’s Al Wahda host resurgent Saudi Arabians Al Ittihad in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
The visitors have been rejuvenated by last month’s decision to ditch ex-West Ham United boss Slaven Bilic and rehire Jose Luis Sierra. A three-match unbeaten run has lifted them out of the direct drop zone in the Saudi Professional League, plus humiliate Qatar’s Al Rayyan with a 5-1 humbling when Group B got under way in the continental event.
In contrast, the Clarets’ mixed recent results continued with last week’s 2-0 defeat at Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent.
Here are the talking points:
TESTING THE SIERRA EFFECT
Sierra’s swiftness in lifting the cloud that hung over Ittihad has been startling.
The man cast aside last summer – in spite of two trophies in two seasons in charge – had watched from afar as one of the Kingdom’s grandees careered towards a first relegation in 92 years of existence.
His gift has been to impart positivity amid a nightmare period. Be it through adding an unforeseen attacking edge to Bilic’s 4-2-3-1 formation, or finally getting winter buy Aleksandar Prijovic – not present in the UAE – to break his drought with a brace in Friday’s energising 2-0 victory against Al Feyha.
Now comes another test. Is this spell just the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, or something else entirely?
WHICH WAHDA WILL WE SEE?
Wahda’s recent run tells you everything about their miserable 2018/19.
A six-match streak of alternative wins and losses stretches back to February 5’s 4-2 win at promoted Ittihad Kalba in the Arabian Gulf League. Their distant fifth place is utterly justified.
Most recently, they were well beaten by Lokomotiv. Any realistic hope of earning a return to the knockouts for the first time since 2007 could be dealt a mortal blow by Ittihad.
STICK WITH THE SAUDIS
Sierra sprung a surprise last Monday, starting just one of his struggling foreign quartet – Brazilian forward Romarinho – upon the end of Ittihad’s three-year exile from the ACL.
The outcome was emphatic.
January addition Abdulaziz Al Bishi, plus squad men like Abdulaziz Al Aryani and Ziyad Al Sahafi, will hope for more of the same.
With SPL survival the overriding priority, Sierra should stick with these figures at Wahda.
Ittihad football delegation off to Abu Dhabi at dawn pic.twitter.com/6NAUwY5ppz— Ittihad Club (@ittihad_en) March 8, 2019
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UAE sports leader, Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, promised to clean up and unlock the potential of the world’s biggest football continent as he launched his campaign bid to become President of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
In a powerful ceremony at the Louvre Abu Dhabi on March 7, the candidate pledged to “make significant levels of new investment for every Member Association, increase participation at all levels of the game” and introduce genuine “transparency and independence”.
Al Romaithi’s bold election campaign manifesto for change, ‘Making Football Fair,’ was unveiled at the Louvre launch, heralding Asia’s first contemporary continental blueprint for football development.
Al Romaithi is adamant that now is the time to throw off years of inadequate investment and poor governance, which has stalled the development of the world’s most popular game in the world’s biggest football continent.
In a move not seen before, Al Romaithi, who is the chairman of the General Authority for Sports in the UAE, unveiled a comprehensive, fully-funded manifesto designed to make football fair for all in Asia, and more competitive internationally.
Under Al Romaithi’s leadership the AFC would become the most “inclusive and independent” football confederation in the world.
“I have seen first-hand how the power of football can change the lives of everyone for the better, but in Asia this power has been abused to the detriment of our people,” Al Romaithi said.
“Now is the time for change, now is the time for a new era, now is the time to make football fair for all,” he said.
Football is failing in Asia: We deserve better
Among a raft of initiatives, Al Romaithi, who was vice president of the Local Organising Committee for the recent 2019 AFC Asian Cup, pledged:
The Al Romaithi manifesto is designed to “bring Asian football into the 21st century,” and is the first contemporary strategic plan devised to develop football in Asia.
The ‘Making Football Fair’ manifesto empowers member associations with the means to do what has never been done before: win the FIFA World Cup for Asia.
“I want every boy and girl from every nation, from every faith and of every age to have the chance to play football and dream of one day lifting the World Cup,” Al Romaithi said.
Building a football future based on investment and independence
For the first time, 25 per cent of each Member Association’s annual investment from the AFC will be ring-fenced for the development of women’s football. This, along with promises to expand the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, establish an AFC Women’s Champions League and introduce annual AFC youth competitions, highlights Al Romaithi’s commitment to growing the game for all.
“We need to modernise our failing football system and create more opportunities to play the beautiful game,” said the man who represented Al Ain, the UAE’s most decorated football club, at youth level.
“All member associations need to give youth a fair chance with more opportunities to play, learn and progress – unlocking their full potential.”
Al Romaithi is committed to delivering more competitive football for every age group. He will reinstate U13 eight-a-side regional festivals for boys and girls, and he will ensure all U14-U23 teams have the opportunity to play regular international fixtures every year.
“These are the catalysts our national teams need,” Al Romaithi said. “More international football at a young age will encourage the development of our best players and allow us to be truly competitive with our European, North and South American and African counterparts.”
Ensuring financial fair play for all
From becoming chairman of his beloved Al Ain FC to serving as an AFC Executive Committee member, Al Romaithi has spent the past 20 years at the heart of the Asian sports community and understands every level of football governance.
If elected, Al Romaithi will establish five regional AFC development offices, publish detailed annual financial reports and create an independent office of budgetary responsibility.
“The AFC stands under a dark cloud, one shrouded in politics and poor governance,” Al Romaithi said. “My manifesto is underpinned by my values, values that have been instilled in me through a lifetime of service to my country and my continent.
“Integrity, transparency, fairness and respect are the fundamental principles by which I live my life and they will become the bedrock of my presidency.”
Under Al Romaithi’s leadership the AFC will become a confederation that decides issues for itself and achieves fair representation on the world stage.
“I am committed to increasing the number of quota places available for Asian teams at all FIFA competitions and ensure extra funding from FIFA is made available for all Member Associations,” he promised.
Al Romaithi will begin a three-week tour of Asia sharing and discussing his manifesto for reform with football and sporting leaders across the region leading up to the AFC Session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 6.
“Football gives hope for a better world,” Al Romaithi said. “That is why I want to create a confederation that is based on excellence and that is fair and equal for all.
“To prepare for that future we must begin today.”
Saudi Arabia’s leading sides return to domestic duty after varied lessons were gleaned from their 2019 AFC Champions League bows.
Relegation candidates Al Ittihad went native and triumphed, with Al Ahli Jeddah and Saudi Professional League leaders Al Hilal also prevailing. In contrast, Al Nassr left themselves open to questionable officiating with a limp performance.
Here are the talking points ahead of round 23:
ITTIHAD’S HOMEGROWN SOLUTION
A rare highlight amid an appalling 2018/19 came on Monday when Ittihad roared back from 1-0 down against Qatar’s Al Rayyan and prevailed 5-1.
This resounding victory – their first in a month and first in two matches under returning saviour Jose Luis Sierra – provided a morale lift for Friday’s vital meeting with fellow drop-zone members Al Fayha. Its lasting legacy, however, should be a roadmap towards survival in the face of a shameful opening demotion of their 92-year history.
The Chilean supremo exhibited a radical reaction to the cutting in half of his foreign selection for continental duty, from eight to four. Only Brazilian forward Romarinho started, plus just Chile playmaker Carlos Villanueva and Australia centre-back Matthew Jurman would emerge from the bench.
Rare starts for forward Abdulrahman Al Aryani (one in 2018/19 SPL) and winger Abdulrahman Al Ghamdi (eight in 2018/19 SPL) were rewarded with strikes. Two-goal Saudi Arabia forward Fahad Al Muwallad also exhibited greater chemistry with his countrymen, than misfiring foreigners such as Garry Rodrigues and Aleksandar Prijovic.
Sierra should not be scared to ignore his club’s transfer flops. It could salvage their season.
Coach Luis Sierra’s press conference after tonight’s match against Alrayyan pic.twitter.com/avvpYpJDho— Ittihad Club (@ittihad_en) March 4, 2019
Anticipation surrounds holders Hilal’s glamour winter addition.
Sebastian Giovinco arrived in the Kingdom injured from Toronto FC and has been gradually introduced into a winning system. A double in last weekend’s 2-1 victory against Al Faisaly was followed by a refined 83 minutes in the 1-0 continental triumph at Al Ain.
The Italy playmaker’s integration should continue apace at sixth-placed Al Wehda on Friday. His twinning with influential Brazil centre midfielder Carlos Eduardo is a tactical problem for boss Zoran Mamic to solve, as both prosper behind the striker.
If a successful partnership is forged, Hilal should not only be unstoppable in Saudi.
NASSR’S WAKE-UP CALL
Everything was going so well for Rui Vitoria at Nassr.
Then a ridiculous penalty and 1-0 loss at Al Wasl in the ACL was recorded. The Riyadh giants dominated possession (66/34 per cent), but a narrow edge in attempts on target (three/two) shows how anaemic their display was in Dubai.
Their ex-Benfica supremo must hope this reversal – only a second in nine matches in charge – provides a jolt to the system ahead of Friday’s visit of sinking Ettifaq.