Asian Champions League: Luis Milla needs to work his magic for Al Jazira

The Abu Dhabi club have no option but to beat Al Jaish tonight. Any other result could mean curtains to their Asian title hopes and possibly even the job of their coach.

Luis Milla's job as Al Jazira coach looks like it is hanging in the balance not long after he was hired by the Abu Dhabi club. Lee Hoagland / The National
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A dirham for Paulo Bonamigo's thoughts.

On February 21, a few minutes after leading Al Jazira to a 4-1 Pro League home win over Al Dhafra, the Brazilian was informed he had been replaced by Luis Milla, previously the coach of Spain's 2012 Olympic team. At the time, Jazira sat in second place in the Pro League, only six points behind leaders Al Ain, and the most likely challengers to their crown.

To say the move has backfired is one of the understatements of the season.

And for Milla's struggling team, there will be no respite anytime soon. Tonight they face Qatar's Al Jaish in Round 3 of the AFC Champions League Group A; on current form, few would expect them to come home with three points.

Since replacing Bonamigo, Milla has overseen only one victory in seven matches, over Al Wahda in the Etisalat Cup semi-finals last week. But four days later, they contrived to lose 3-2 to Al Wasl at home after taking the lead twice. They now sit fourth in the table, 14 points behind the leaders. Despite that earlier cup success, the overall trend appears to be one of steady decline since the managerial change. Even some of the players, including the captain Ibrahim Diaky, have expressed surprise at the timing of Bonamigo's dismissal.

And yet Milla, the club's fourth coach in a year, cannot shoulder all of the blame. His first two assignments for the club where the daunting trips to Tractor Sazi of Iran and Pro League leaders Al Ain, two defeats that have set the tone for his reign, so far. The Spaniard must have wondered what he has let himself into.

Even taking into account the instability brought about by Bonamigo's exit, Jazira's loss of form has been inexplicably dramatic. This is a club who won the Pro League title only two years ago and remains stacked with players like the Gulf Cup heroes Ali Kasheif, Ali Mabkhout and Khamis Esmail; the Brazilian Ricardo Oliveira and the Argentine Matias Delgado; and Diaky, the Ivorian.

How does Milla approach tonight's match? Jazira are almost in must-win territory. A draw tonight, would not be disaster against a team currently on the same number of points in the group. A loss, however, and the club will need at least seven, or the maximum nine, points from their last three matches to have any hope of qualifying for the next stage.

Does Milla play it safe, or go all out for what would be a priceless, if unlikely, win?

More importantly, should Jazira lose, how long will Milla remain in the hot seat? After the return match against Al Jaish next Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Jazira will have two remaining group matches, a trip to Saudi Arabia to face Al Shabab and a home game to Tractor Sazi. But it could all be academic by then. Jazira need a result tonight, and in Al Jaish will face an opponent on the rise.

The Qatar Star League outfit are ahead of Jazira only on goal difference in Group A, having drawn 3-3 at home against Tractor Sazi following an opening defeat by Al Shabab. For them, the double header is as crucial as it is for the Abu Dhabi club.

And yet their domestic record over the past 10 matches should give Milla plenty of concern: the current holders of the Qatar Stars Cup have won nine of 10 games in Qatar's league and cup, and sit third in the league, only four points behind Al Sadd.

Those numbers will hardly fill anyone associated with Jazira with confidence. But before worrying about the opposition, Jazira must get their own affairs in order.

On Friday night, with the score standing at 2-2 against Wasl, Milla, presumably with tonight's match against Al Jaish in mind, took off both Oliveira and Delgado. And although on-form striker Mabkhout came on for Oliveira, it was, not for the first time this season, a decision that backfired spectacularly on club and the manager.

At Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium tonight, Jazira can ill afford any more rash decisions; this is a club with little margin for error. As they continue to struggle domestically, their participation in next season's Champions League is now at stake. And, in all likelihood, so is Milla's job.

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