This has been a week Henk ten Cate will never forget.
Fist pumps followed the final whistle yesterday high up in the tranquil Hajar Mountains, where the silence was only broken by the incessant ‘Jazawi’ support who’d driven more than 250 kilometres to celebrate their club’s climb back to the summit of UAE football.
A travelling horde had come to see the Dutchman complete his miracle job by avoiding defeat at Hatta and secure Al Jazira’s possession of the cherished Arabian Gulf League title, with two matches to spare. The mission was completed with typical efficiency, a 5-0 win owing much to a hat-trick from 31-goal striker Ali Mabkhout.
This taste of glory acted as recompense, if not complete, for a befuddling but honest decision to turn down the Netherlands national job on Monday.
Some turnaround has been engineered at Jazira from the relegation-threatened rabble inherited in December 2015. Never mind the fact Ten Cate’s previous taste of management in the UAE at Al Ahli in 2010 lasted a month and ended with an admission he felt “deeply ashamed” of his work.
For a man steeped in the Dutch school of ‘totaalvoetbal’ (Total Football) and whom played a prominent support role as Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard lifted Barcelona back to the preeminent position as the sport’s great aesthetes, you would have expected this success in Abu Dhabi to have been attained with a swagger.
Yet Ten Cate’s greatest attributes have been both his pragmatism and ability to rein in a club of wild and feckless excesses. The potential attainment of a record points-tally and win total points further to the merit of his outlook.
Staggering football, like that witnessed in Eric Gerets’ joyously fallible 2014/15 campaign, has not occurred. Such an approach is no surprise, with the stoic win in the 2016 President’s Cup final on penalties against superior Al Ain acting as bellwether.
There is a mechanical streak which relies on ruthlessness on the counter, regardless of the fact 67 goals mean they are the division’s top scorers.
Whether switching between a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, Jazira have cast aside a porous reputation and profited through Mabkhout’s lethality. His 31 goal-tally is 25 more than any other team-mate.
They now boast the meanest defence, some change for a club who had the seventh-best in the previous two campaigns.
Ten Cate’s Machiavellian streak was most prominent in his disregard towards the 2017 AFC Champions League. Despite boasting a nine-point lead with seven AGL fixtures to play, a decision to ditch eight regulars for the 1-0 home loss to Esteghlal Khuzestan showed that even by the second Group C fixture he had no desire to advance.
Such ruthlessness, critically, has not been reflected in the actions of Al Ahli and Al Ain – the sides who were expected to extend their monopolisation of the AGL trophy since Jazira last lifted it in 2010/11.
Al Ain’s efforts in the 2016 AFC Champions League final and domestically have been glaringly hamstrung by a long-term inability to recruit a lethal No9.
Ahli have imploded at a bureaucratic level. A failure to sign an Asian-qualified player in January was unprecedented, while a loan of injury-ravaged Asamoah Gyan has produced barren results.
In contrast, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa has added intelligence at Jazira, while the decision to retain South Korea anchor man Park Jong-woo was astute. A promotion of colt midfielders Mohamed Jamal and the electric Khalfan Mubarak has been essential.
Amid this chaos, Ten Cate has created uncharacteristic consistency to shatter this duopoly.
This minimalistic approach has also curbed the excesses of a club who have gone through coaches, sporting directors and foreign recruits for fun in the last six years.
Taming the beast has been central to Ten Cate and Jazira’s triumph.
Al Jazira boss Henk ten Cate has declared his dominant champions elect will “fight with all our strength” on Saturday at Hatta to finish the job early and end a six-year wait to claim the Arabian Gulf League’s crown.
A stunning 2016/17 campaign for the Pride of Abu Dhabi is guaranteed to be capped off with the title if they avoid defeat at a promoted side freshly assured of safety. Such a result would see them dethrone Al Ahli, whom they boast a superior head-to-head record against, with two matches to spare.
“There is no need to be reminded that this game is the most important of all, because a win or draw gives us the title,” said 62-year-old Ten Cate, who also turned down the Netherlands job this week.
“This is well deserved, plus all the players, administrators and technical staff have been looking forward to this day for quite some time. We will offer the best we have and fight with all our strength at Hatta until we get the result that we want and until we achieve this wonderful dream.
“All the players are ready, physically and mentally. All of them strongly want to participate in the match at Hatta.”
In possession of the best attack and second-meanest defence, it is hard to argue with Jazira’s ascension.
Gaining the club’s second top-flight trophy would continue ex-Barcelona and Chelsea assistant Ten Cate’s miraculous work. He took over relegation-threatened underachievers in December 2015, soon going on to lift last year’s President’s Cup.
The Dutchman was not expecting a simple task high up in the Hajar Mountains, memories of 28-goal leading marksman Ali Mabkhout’s last-gasp winner in December fresh in his mind.
He said: “Saturday’s game will not be easy in any way.
“I do not think that the fact they have ensured survival would weaken their motivation in front of Al Jazira.
“We expect a tough game, like that we played in front of them in our stadium.”
Meanwhile, coach Cosmin Olaroiu has sternly rejected reports he has agreed to swap Al Ahli for Al Ahli Jeddah, ahead of Saturday’s likely loss of the title.
The ex-Al Hilal supremo has been linked with a return to Saudi Arabia as Christian Gross’ replacement. Such a move would see the 47-year-old prematurely call time on a trophy-laden four-year spell at Rashid Stadium, following a season stained by institutional tumult.
“They are just rumours,” said Olaroiu, whose side must beat Sharjah and hope runaway leaders Al Jazira slip-up at Hatta. “I respect my contract with Al Ahli, which expires at the end of next season.”
Al Ain tactician Zoran Mamic has urged his stars to keep pushing for the top-three and 2018 AFC Champions League qualification when they welcome Al Wahda.
The Boss – who roared into the 2017 edition’s round of 16 with a 3-0 midweek win at Iran’ Zob Ahan – trail Al Wasl by two points following the previous humiliating 4-3 reversal against them when three-goals up.
“We are concentrating on the game versus Al Wahda and are fighting for third,” said Mamic, who will be without banned 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman. “We need all nine points left.”
UAE veteran Ali Karim has revealed he and his team-mates have their “hearts set on” creating history, ahead of their 2017 Beach Soccer World Cup campaign kicking off (Saturday 04:00 UAE time).
The Whites have headed to the Bahamas for a fifth tournament, determined to make it past the group stage for the first time. Standing in the way of the 36-year-old and his colleagues in Group C are holders Portugal, 2017 CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship winners Panama and ex-coach Guga’s Paraguay – whom they open the tournament against.
But such opponents will hold little fear, after a sterling runners-up spot was secured at last month’s AFC Beach Soccer Championship.
“When we got back home we didn’t rest,” Karim told FIFA.com about the qualifying event in Malaysia. “We stepped up our training for the World Cup, especially when we found out who we were playing.
“I think we’ll do well because of the skill levels we’ve got now.
“We can make it to the second round and we’ve got our hearts set on it. We’re excited at the idea of another major achievement.”
Karim made his international debut a decade ago, just before the 2007 event.
He said: “I didn’t think I’d be able to make the switch from grass to fine sand but I found my way.
“My passion has only grown over the years. We’ve got a blend of experienced players and motivated youngsters and we can now go further than we’ve ever gone before.”
UAE’s Group C fixtures