DUBAI // Toninho Cerezo was hailed as an artist, respected for his skills and agility and feared for his tenacity during his illustrious playing career in Brazil and Italy. His adroitness was something he was born with and cannot be taught, but the former Brazil international has certainly managed to infuse his wards at Al Shabab with a spirit of conviction that saw them bring down mighty Uzbeks Bunyodkor, Rivaldo and all, in their last outing in the AFC Champions League.
Shabab have not played a game since that memorable 2-0 win three weeks ago at home, but they have been working hard to iron out their flaws and Cerezo hopes their labours will bear fruit when they play the Saudis Ettifaq in Dammam tonight. "This break has been very useful for us," said Cerezo, who guided Shabab to their first league title in 15 years last season. "It has allowed the players to catch their breath and also given us the opportunity to test different players and strategies.
"The training sessions have had a positive impact on the morale of the players and now we are hungry to get back into the thick of action. "We want to achieve a positive result in this game, which will not only improve our chances of progressing in the Champions League, but also give us a boost for the President's Cup final." Shabab face Etisalat Cup winners Al Ain in the President's Cup final on April 13, but Cerezo has had little time to think about that game in the past few days.
He has been busy following the fortunes of Ettifaq and watched them go down 2-0 in the league to Al Hilal on Saturday. The Saudis have won just once in their last seven games, a 2-1 triumph over Sepahan in the last round of the Champions League. While Ettifaq have struggled, Shabab's fortunes have been on the rise since the resumption of the Pro League in February. They have won six of their last 10 games and their renewed confidence was in evidence in the win over Bunyodkor.
"To win a game is always great because it energises the players," said Cerezo. "Players get confidence through every win; it gives a boost to their morale. The only thing we lack in the UAE is experience. The players are scared of making mistakes that is why they are wary of going all out. They try to hold back and be conservative. "They are scared that if they make a mistake, it will spoil the result. This attitude will change through maturity, game by game. They will get more experience and more confidence."
All four teams in Group D are on three points and Cerezo, who will be without injured No 1 goalkeeper Ismail Rabea, added: "A team who can get points in the away games and keep winning at home will have a good chance of progressing." firstname.lastname@example.org Ettifaq v Shabab, Abu Dhabi Sports 1, 8pm