In the middle of a wildly inconsistent domestic season, Al Jazira return to continental action on Wednesday as the 2016 Asian Champions League (ACL) group stages get under way with a trip to Tractor Sazi of Iran.
If new manager Henk ten Cate is searching for encouragement he need only look at the recent exploits of Al Ahli, last year’s losing finalists and the team he briefly coached in 2009.
The Dubai club were going through a similarly poor season when they kicked off their Champions League campaign a year ago.
For Ahli manager Cosmin Olaroiu, there was salvation in Asia’s premier club competition. By the end of the domestic season last May, Al Ahli had qualified to the knockout stages of the ACL, and from then on marched to the final before losing over two legs to Guangzhou Evergrande of China in November.
Now Ten Cate will aim to repeat that trick with Al Jazira, who last reached the knockout stages of the competition two years ago.
He took over a sinking ship in December. Star striker Mirko Vucinic was out for the season and Ali Mabkhout was struggling for goals and form. The defence was leaking at the other end, a 4-0 humiliation at Fujairah costing Abel Braga his job as the club sat in 12th place in the Arabian Gulf League. Ten Cate has started to turn things around.
A penalty shoot-out win over Al Sadd of Qatar saw Al Jazira qualify to the ACL group stages and, after two draws and a loss in his first three matches, Ten Cate has now overseen a three-match winning streak in the AGL.
“I want the players to play without pressure, to enjoy football,” the Dutchman said after an important 2-1 win at Al Shabab.
Belatedly, the same group who played with joyous abandon last season, but laboured this term, are once again performing with smiles on their faces.
Mabkhout has scored six goals in six matches since Ten Cate took over, the UAE forward “on fire” according to his coach. New signing from Cardiff City Kenwyne Jones has drawn praise for his strength and effort, even if the goals have yet to flow. And Thiago Neves, with seven goals this season, has shown improvement in recent weeks.
Their last league outing, a messy 3-2 win over Baniyas brought back memories of last season’s high-scoring, often chaotic, matches that saw the club challenge Al Ain for the league title until the closing weeks of the campaign.
Al Jazira scored three or more goals on a remarkable 14 occasions last term. They also conceded two or more 16 times.
Ten Cate will hope that the return to high-scoring form continues in the traditionally difficult settings of Iran’s football stadia, where Emirati clubs have not always fared well in recent years.
Yet Tractor Sazi are only seventh in their domestic league, and have finished bottom of their Champions League group in the last three seasons.
On current form Al Jazira will be confident of a positive start in Tabriz. Ten Cate, who is on a six-month contract with the Abu Dhabi club, will have his eyes on an extended new deal if Jazira can remain in the competition beyond the summer.
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