x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nine matches away from invincibility

Al Jazira are more than half way to an unbeaten Pro League season, which has never been accomplished in UAE history.

The most renown "Invincibles" were the Gunners of Arsenal from the 2003/04 Premier League season when they were unbeaten in 38 matches.

The original Invincibles, however, were the English side Preston North End, who did not lose in 22 matches in 1888/89. Al Jazira of the Pro League are moving into position to become the latest side worthy of the appellation.

Thirteen matches into the 2010/11 season, Jazira have won 11 and drawn two. And this is not some dramatic change in form; Jazira lost only once last season and only twice in 2008/09. Since the league went professional they have tasted defeat only three times in 57 matches and are unbeaten in 21 league games since February 14, 2010.

No top-flight club has finished unbeaten in modern UAE history; it could be none ever has.

How do we explain Jazira's excellence?

Begin with Abel Braga, the coach. This is the Brazilian's third season at Jazira, which makes him an old hand by Pro League standards. Stability often is its own reward. As Phil Anderton, the club's chief executive, has noted, every coach has his own methods and style, and he cannot coax them out of his side in a month or even a season.

Certainly, too, the financial commitment from the Jazira management is important. This is a club which set the league record for the most expensive signing in the summer of 2008 (Rafael Sobis, Dh51.2 million) and again in the summer of 2009 (Ricardo Oliveira, Dh72.5m).

But the real source of Jazira's current mastery is their elite Emirati players. In a league where only three foreigners may play at once, it is the side with the top Emiratis who are best positioned to be the top of the table.

At Jazira, the key performers with UAE passports include the midfielders Ibrahim Diaky, Subait Khater and Ahmed Jumaa; the full-backs Khaled Sabeel and Abdullah Mousa and the goalkeeper Ali Kasheif.

Many Pro League sides struggle to find nationals to complement their three foreigners. At Jazira, however, the club have searched for foreigners to successfully fit in with their Emirati core.

When the foreigners are in form, as they were in a 3-0 demolition of Sharjah last week, Jazira are able to put into practice what appears to be Braga's preferred style of play - an emphasis on attack that Arsene Wenger's Invincibles might applaud.

Now that Bare, the big and powerful Brazilian target man, has found his form, and his compatriot Oliveira again looks like a Dh72.5m player, and the Argentine midfielder Matias Delgado has become a box-to-box force, Jazira are a handful - because they already have Khater and Diaky, perhaps the best player in the league, dominating the middle of the park, and the fast and powerful Sabeel and Mousa making penetrating runs up the flanks.

This team also bring a physical dimension unmatched in the league. They are a big team with big men who are dangerous in the air and can muscle opponents off the ball.

To be sure, Jazira have flaws. Opponents will always get scoring chances against an attack-minded side with issues in central defence. Indeed, only Kasheif's brilliance in goal has kept opponents from a dozen breakaway goals.

They have a recent history, too, of slipping in the second half of the season; Braga is quick to remind his admirers that Jazira have faded to second for three consecutive seasons.

Also, his team's talent does not extend far behind his first XI; a handful of injuries could wreck the side. To finish unbeaten, Jazira have nine league matches to negotiate, and they may not get past the next, away to arch-rivals Al Wahda on March 24. Home to Al Ahli, away to Baniyas … it will not be easy.

Inside the club, they must be fixated on only one goal: a first league championship.

Playing 22 games without defeat will not be a goal verbalised, but it might be one attained out of that desperate and overriding desire to be champions.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae