x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In appointing the Italian, Jazira have chosen the right man to get their season back on track.

Walter Zenga took charge of his first training session with Al Jazira today in Abu Dhabi. Al Jazira Football Club
Walter Zenga took charge of his first training session with Al Jazira today in Abu Dhabi. Al Jazira Football Club

Even if the manner in which Walter Zenga was introduced as Al Jazira manager on Friday night seemed a mite disagreeable, there is little doubt the Abu Dhabi club have made an incredibly astute appointment.

As Luis Milla’s troubled tenure was grinding to a halt in the distant surroundings of Madinat Zayed against Al Dhafra, Jazira were readying confirmation the match was indeed to be the Spaniard’s last; Milla time had finally elapsed.

It had been coming. In 28 competitive fixtures as Jazira coach before the Dhafra encounter, Milla had overseen only 10 victories, the nadir a 2-1 defeat to Ajman in May’s Etisalat Cup final.

He always appeared to be fighting an uphill battle. Recruited in February as Paulo Bonamigo’s replacement, Milla was tasked with refining the playing style of a side on a 19-match unbeaten streak. Comfortable success gave way to uneasy experimentation.

The timing of his employment was questionable, too. Milla’s initial assignment was an intimidating trip to Iran’s Tractor Sazi Tabriz in the Arabian Champions League, a competition that eventually yielded five points from a possible 18.

Then, a top-of-the-table clash against Al Ain, the defending champions, that effectively ended Jazira’s title challenge. From there, and in spite of a third-placed finish in the league, Milla never really recovered.

He was constantly reminded that he teetered on the cliff edge. Every pre-match press briefing, every post-game media exchange; questions regarding his future were the default discourse. In all, Milla remained dignified and defiant.

Yet something was always going to give. Even as news filtered through of Zenga’s election, Milla maintained a class act, thanking the club for providing him the opportunity as coach, accepting the decision was inevitable and even wishing his successor well for the future.

It must have been a serious dent to Milla’s professional pride but, in truth, it was ultimately a professional call from Jazira.

Again, the timing was dubious – even in that the league programme recently paused for three weeks – yet in Zenga they have selected a coach with genuine credentials in UAE football.

In his first 20 months at Al Nasr – the same length of time as his new contract – the Italian transformed the Dubai club from relegation candidates to the country’s second best side.

Last season began particularly well, with Nasr beaten once in their opening 11 league matches before frustrating results against Kalba and Al Shaab punctured top-four aspirations. Concluding the campaign in sixth, the club and coach parted company, although Zenga had anticipated another term in charge.

Now at Jazira, he can prove Nasr were too quick to let him go.

Following a serious splurge in the summer, the capital club boast one of the division’s finest squads, bolstered by the technically talented Abdelaziz Barrada and Nelson Valdez, a striker with a significant skill set.

Jazira possess a strong UAE backbone, as well, with Ali Kasheif arguably the league’s finest goalkeeper, and Khamis Esmail and Ali Makbhout national team regulars. Remember, at Nasr, Zenga prospered on limited resources.

Then there is his character.

At times too abrasive, especially with the media, Zenga’s combative approach can appear divisive, but it also fosters a resolute loyalty among his players. At Al Maktoum Stadium, almost everyone still speaks highly of their former coach.

That he understands the culture here suggests there will be little, if no, period of adaptation required. In retaining residence in Dubai, he still knows well the league and should find no trouble in coaxing from his players what Milla could not. Zenga, in personality and pedigree, commands respect.

Expectation will undoubtedly be high at Jazira, and they are already playing catch-up, but in their latest manager the club have chosen someone with a capacity to thrive on the main stage.

jmcauley@thenational.ae