Reigning champions Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou go into the finals as favourites but will have to be wary of the three rivals schools desperate to knock them off their perch.
Frederic Deswarte’s men scraped into the Emirates Islamic National School League Football semi-finals two weeks ago thanks to Allesio Cicchi’s superb header 10 seconds from the end of extra time against Indian High School Oud Metha.
Up until then the quarter-final had been even, with Oud Metha goalkeeper Piyush Salain enjoying an inspired game between the sticks to keep the French side at bay in an entertaining clash.
Cicchi’s fine header meant heartbreak for Oud Metha but gave LFI a shot at defending their crown they won in such inspring fashion 12 months ago to be crowned the inaugural NSL champions.
LFI will come up against Our Own English High School Fujairah in the semi-final at The Sevens on Saturday, a side who also needed extra time to overcome Delhi Private School Dubai.
In fact, of all the semi-finalists, only NIMS Sharjah got to the last four stage without too much drama. After thrashing Springdales 7-0 in their last 16 clash two weeks ago, NIMS beat Abu Dhabi Indian School 2-0 in the last eight.
Diminutive striker Mohammad Shafik Taj is arguably the smallest player in the NSL’s U-14s section, but he is dreaming big ahead of their clash with Wellington International – who reached the last four with a 1-0 extra time victory against The Millennium School Dubai.
“(The last game) was the best game of the tournament so far, Taj said ahead of the tournament finale.
“We are in the semi-final and we are so happy to be there. We are there because of teamwork and Inshallah we can go on to the final now and win it.”
Mohamed Sajid is the man for the big occasion and the Al Ain Juniors English talisman is hoping he can continue his rich vein of goalscoring form and help carry his side all the way to Emirates Islamic National School League Football glory this weekend.
The second installment of the tournament concludes at The Sevens on Saturday, with debutants Al Ain taking on GEMS Our Own Indian School in the NSL’s under-16 semi-finals.
Al Ain thrashed Dubai’s Indian School Oud Metha in the last 16 two weeks ago 5-1 but had a tougher time in the quarter-final against Abu Dhabi Indian School (ADIS), Sajid’s eighth goal of the tournament proving crucial as Al Ain won 1-0 to make it to finals day.
He also scored a hat-trick against Oud Metha and is hoping his purple patch continues as Al Ain look to cap their first season in the NSL with a trophy.
“It was a tough game (against ADIS) and we had to defend a lot at the end, games are a lot tighter in the knockout stages we realised,” said Sajid, 15.
“(The goal against ADIS), it was my eighth goal of the tournament and it was an important one too as we won 1-0. If we lose any matches we’re out.
“I scored a hat-trick in the first game as we won 5-1. I hope I can score more in the semis. It would feel amazing to win the tournament on our debut.”
Saturday’s last four will pit Al Ain against a GEMS side who overcame Fujairah’s Institute of Applied Technology in the last 16 3-2.
Captain Tony Paul led by example in victory, betting one of his side’s goals, and the 16-year-old skipper is pumped up for Saturday’s showdown.
“Last year we played in the tournament, but it was disappointing as we got knocked out in the group stages,” said Paul.
“It feels amazing to be through not only to the knockout stages this year, but now to the semi-finals. The quarter-final was that sort of match where we didn’t know we were through right until the final whistle, we just gave our heart and soul and in the end, we won.
“Now we just want to do the same again in the semis.”
Reigning champions Lycee Francais International Georges Pompidou will be vying to meet wither GEMS or Al Ain in the final, but they will first have to find a way past Our Own English High School Al Ain who beat Al Dhafra 2-1 to set up a date with Frederic Deswarte’s men.
A saunter to the inaugural U-16 title has not been replicated this season, with striker Ralph Charaf’s eye-catching goal two weeks ago sending LFI through via a 1-0 win against Alkamal American School.
Charaf, 15, did not feature for the champions last season, but feels better competition will actually help LFI.
“My team-mates have told me the games have been tougher this year, which I think is better,” he said.
“It’s always better to get a test because otherwise you don’t improve.”
Jamal Bin Ghalaita, CEO, of Emirates Islamic said: “The second season of our junior football league has witnessed healthy competition, exciting football, and the strong athletic spirit of the youth in the UAE. I am very pleased to see these young children take great pride and display such intense passion for this wonderful sport.
“As a bank that has always focused on giving back to the community, Emirates Islamic is proud to channel this energy into an initiative that will enable these young footballers to further pursue their dreams and inculcate health and fitness as an integral part of their lifestyle.”
With a highly successful inaugural edition in 2015/2016, the second season of the Emirates Islamic National School League – Football’ saw a greater participation with over 90 teams from 60 schools in the UAE competing and the addition of an Under 12’s category.
Fast-paced action was the name of the game in the group stages of the first-ever Emirates Islamic National School League Football Under-12 competition.
A total of 20 regional schools competed across four groups on Saturday at the Koora Dome, with the top two in each qualifying for next weekend’s finals.
The standout teams on the day were Dubai English Speaking School (DESS), Dubai International Academy (DIA) and The Millennium School, who all won all four of their matches, along with fellow unbeaten side GEMS Our Own Indian School.
DESS and DIA particularly stood out from the rest of the competition, their high-octane attacks putting them on a potential collision course when the remaining eight teams return to the pitch this coming Saturday.
If his red-hot form is any indication, Adria Anglada could make DIA the team to beat after the blond bomber scored nine of his side’s 17 goals, including at least two in every match en route to earning three man of the match awards. Anglada’s hat-trick against Mayoor Private School powered DIA to its most lopsided victory of the day, a 7-0 explosion that showed their potential.
“I think we did very well,” Anglada said. “We all worked together hard and we’ve been practicing for this tournament. We’ve never played five-aside and I think we’ve done very well.
“We were passing quickly and our shots were very clinical.”
With DESS and other contenders looming, Anglada knows the task is far from completed and added: “The finals will be our toughest matches and we’re going to try to work as hard as we can. We’re going to also use their weaknesses for us to win.”
If DIA are threatening, then DESS’ prowess is lethal. The Dubai school topped all teams with 24 goals, all while keeping a clean sheet in each of their four comfortable victories.
Coach Paul Barratt said: “One of the key words we worked on today was ‘transition’. As soon as they won the ball back, they wanted to attack quickly.
“Vice versa as well, as soon as they lost the ball, it was really about getting back in the defensive shape. They implemented it well.”
Such is the strength of DESS’ depth that they had six different players score in the group stages, with contributions coming across the board.
“The last game was quite funny,” said Barratt.
“They all wanted to score because they know a voucher was on offer.”
The remaining eight teams will battle it out for the inaugural title at The Sevens on Saturday, followed by the Under-14 and Under-16 age groups crowning their champions.