Little room for sentiment for Zenga as Al Jazira visit Al Nasr

Coach returns to club he once managed but feels no less competitive ahead of game on Thursday, writes John McAuley.
AbuDhabi, United Arab Emirates- October,30, 2013 : Walter Zenga, Head Coach of  Al Jazira gestures  during the match against Dubai at the Arabian Gulf League at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abudhabi. ( Satish Kumar / The National ) For Sports
AbuDhabi, United Arab Emirates- October,30, 2013 : Walter Zenga, Head Coach of Al Jazira gestures during the match against Dubai at the Arabian Gulf League at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abudhabi. ( Satish Kumar / The National ) For Sports

While never seeming to be the most sentimental of people, Walter Zenga will return to his former home on Thursday and struggle not to reflect on one of his most successful periods as a football manager.

The Italian, combustible and commanding, arrives at Al Maktoum Stadium for the first time as an opposition coach; instead of bathed in Al Nasr’s blue, he wears the colours of Al Jazira.

Just as he did at Nasr, Zenga is flourishing. Since taking charge at Al Jazira in late October, the Abu Dhabi side have climbed to third in the Arabian Gulf League, they contest a cup final next month and are perched on top of Group A in the Asian Champions League.

Rightfully, Zenga has much to look forward to. A clash with Nasr, however, was always going to cast the mind back.

If Zenga departed last summer under the cloud of a disappointing sixth-place finish and in the shadow of Sven-Goran Eriksson, then Nasr’s technical adviser, he returns eager to highlight the significant progress that preceded it.

In two-and-a-half years under Zenga, Nasr rose from near relegation to championship challengers. At the end of his first season, a third-place finish; the next, runners-up to champions Al Ain. It is a time he remembers fondly.

“The remarkable achievements I managed with Al Nasr will remain eternal in the history of the club, such as our participation for the first time in the Asian Champions League and finishing third in the league’s standings for the first time in almost 10 years,” Zenga said. “I think I will get a good reception there.”

That he might, but Nasr’s welcome should not be mistaken for mawkishness. The Dubai club have changed considerably since Zenga’s tenure, with Ivan Jovanovic, his replacement, impressing the board to such an extent that a two-year contract extension is reportedly in the offing.

Nasr are fifth, but have not given up hope of catching Jazira. With a home victory, the gap would shrink to three points with five matches remaining.

“Of course, it’s an important game, every one until the end of the season is going to be,” said Brett Holman, Nasr’s Australian striker. “This is a great opportunity to get close to Jazira. If we win then it puts a little bit of pressure on them. We’ll try everything to get the three points.”

Jazira will be wary. Inside knowledge gives Zenga an advantage, although the former Nasr coach denies it does. Jazira will be weary, too, for this is their fifth assignment in two weeks.

That much was evident in Saturday’s 4-4 draw with Al Wahda, when Jazira stomped to a 3-0 lead, then quickly tired in the second half. If the opportunity to remind Nasr of his abilities is not enough motivation, the derby debacle adds extra focus.

“We started thinking about this game immediately after the end of the Wahda match,” Zenga said. “We will maintain full concentration, impose our style and our personality on the match. We’ll work to provide the best possible performance and we’ll fight until we return from there with the full points.”

So much for sentiment. Should Zenga not be overcome with emotion when he takes his place in the visitors’ dugout, then perhaps his former players may be a little affected to see a familiar face encouraging and cajoling their rivals. Jovanovic, though, insists that is not a concern.

“Mr Zenga spent two-and-a-half years here at Al Nasr and the team here respects him as I’m sure he respects the team he was coaching before,” the Serb said.

“But for the players it’s normal, they have to play to win. They won’t think about anything else. A win, that’s all.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae

Follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: March 26, 2014 04:00 AM

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