Etisalat Cup: Final chance at redemption for Al Jazira and coach Luis Milla
DUBAI // If Luis Milla is feeling the strain ahead of tonight's Etisalat Cup final against Ajman, the Spaniard is hiding it well.
The Al Jazira coach has endured a difficult beginning to life at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, replacing the seemingly successful Paulo Bonamigo with the club placed second in the Pro League table, then overseeing a period of results that prompted a slump in the standings and early elimination from the Asian Champions League.
Teething problems created hefty headaches and doubts swiftly surfaced regarding his future.
However, the Etisalat Cup has provided sanctuary, albeit fleeting. Without victory in his opening five matches, March's semi-final clash with Al Wahda gave Milla a first win and a realistic opportunity of silverware.
Results and performances have since improved, yet Jazira still sit fourth in the league table with two rounds remaining.
As the midfielder Sultan Bargash said, the cup therefore represents a chance for the capital club to save their season.
The natural assumption is that it offers salvation for the manager, too, although he does not appear bowed by the pressure.
"In professional football, every game is important, and to play a final is a bonus of doing good work to reach it," he said.
"We've worked hard the whole year to arrive here, so we will fight to the end to win. We've prepared well for this game."
Preparations have included enhanced displays in their doomed Champions League campaign and domestic victories against Kalba and Al Shaab; Jazira is now unbeaten in three league matches.
Understandably, expectations have been heightened ahead of this evening's encounter at Dubai's Zabeel Stadium, although Milla insists the outcome will not affect his position at the club.
"We're working in a short-term to prepare for this game, but also on the medium- and long-term," he said.
"We know we're a big team, a good club, where we have to do our best in all the competitions, and, now we have three games left in the season the final but also two important league games we want to finish the best way possible.
"We respect Ajman, especially because in the past few games they have been doing very well," Milla added.
"They're a good team with dangerous players in attack and a dynamic midfield, but we'll try to find a way to win."
For Bargash, 24, the occasion is weighted in significance. He realises more than most the importance of what is considered UAE football's least-coveted competition, having come off the bench in the 2010 final against Ajman to score Jazira's second goal in a 2-0 victory. He suggests a repeat result is required.
"For the players, it is our duty to perform to our best abilities, as this is our last chance to win a tournament this year and save our season," he said.
"We still want to fulfil our ambitions of winning some silverware after we've fallen behind in the Pro League, didn't make it out of the group stage of the AFC Champions League, and went out of the President's Cup at the hands of Al Wahda. We must seize our final chance."
Bargash's sentiments were echoed by Ricardo Oliveira, the Jazira captain, who could finish the contest with another trinket: that awarded to the tournament's top scorer.
The Brazilian is currently on 10 goals alongside Founeke Sy, his strike counterpart at Ajman, yet says he is concentrating solely on helping his side to success.
"I'm not even thinking about the number of goals I've scored in the Etisalat Cup or whether I'll be top scorer or not; my main focus is a win for the team," Oliveira said. "It does not matter whoever scores for us.
"Ajman are a good team with many strong players, especially in attack, so we must be focused to win against them.
"This is our only remaining chance to win something this season, and silverware is always Al Jazira's ambition, so for us we must achieve this."
Jazira should be missing only Juma Abdulla, the defender, for tonight's tussle as centre-back Sami Rubaiya is expected to overcome a slight muscle strain.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE
Published: May 13, 2013 04:00 AM