x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pro League: A winter of discontent for Al Nasr and Walter Zenga

Transfers and changes to the squad have backfired and some bad calls in the league have dampened the initial enthusiasm. Ahmed Rizvi reviews the club's situation.

After a good start to the season, Walter Zenga's men have lost their way in their ambition to be the league's best side. Christopher Pike / The National
After a good start to the season, Walter Zenga's men have lost their way in their ambition to be the league's best side. Christopher Pike / The National

Back in September, in the first few days of the new season, Walter Zenga talked about "making history for Al Nasr" this year and ending their long title drought.

The oldest club in the UAE, Nasr's third league title came in 1986 and the last trophy that came to the Dubai club was the 1989 President's Cup. Since then, the club's passionate fans have been waiting for a reason to celebrate.

There have been none.

The last two seasons under Zenga, however, raised their hope. In his first five months at the club, the Italian goalkeeping legend turned Nasr's dismal season around and helped them finish third in the league in 2010/11.

Last season they did one better and finished second behind Al Ain.

Expectations, then, were high this time as the team made a promising start with a stunning 2-1 win at Al Jazira. By the third game, Nasr had moved to the top of the table and stayed there for a couple of weeks before Al Ain inched ahead.

Zenga's team, however, kept within touching distance of the leaders, collecting 20 points from their first nine games; Al Ain were only two ahead at that stage.

Nasr's fortunes, though, have taken a dip since and they have only two wins and nine points from the last nine league matches. Al Ain have amassed 24 points in that period and they are sitting comfortably at the top, while Zenga's men are sixth (29).

A lot of criticism has come Zenga's way in recent times and he has clearly been perturbed.

"I am a bad coach who does not know how to make substitutions and I am responsible for all the losses of the team," the Italian said in late February.

Even Zenga's harshest critics will probably not agree with that, but then, what is it that ails Al Nasr?

The Akram decision

Perhaps the decision to cut ties with Nashat Akram has played a part. The Iraqi midfielder had played an invaluable role in Nasr's promising start. Besides his assists, Akram had scored in three of his first four league matches.

In Akram, Giuseppe Mascara and Leonardo Lima, Nasr had a formidable midfield trio, arguably the hardest-working in the league. However, in January, Zenga decided to replace Akram with Takayuki Morimoto.

The Morimoto decision

It is never easy for a new player to come into a settled squad, especially in the January transfer window, and Morimoto is no exception. Like Luca Toni last season, the Japanese has yet to convince the Nasr fans of his worth, having scored in only one of his five league matches.

Replacing a midfielder with a striker might have disturbed the balance of the team, leaving Mascara (a striker playing in a withdrawn role), Lima and Habib Fardan with too much to do in the midfield.

Eriksson's arrival

Has former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson's arrival as technical director been a distraction for Zenga? Only the Italian can answer that. But back in January, Zenga dismissed any such suggestions and promised to work along with his former coach (at Sampdoria) to achieve Nasr's aspirations.

The luck factor

Nasr have also seen more than a few refereeing decisions go against them, most notably in their last league game against Al Shaab, when they scored what could have been a winner.

The referee, however, later disallowed the goal after the linesman and the fourth official informed him that a substituted Shaab player was still on his way to leaving the pitch.

"It was the biggest blunder," Zenga said. "A big joke."

As Nasr get ready to host Baniyas tonight, Zenga will be hoping similarly painful comedy is not repeated in the coming rounds. And of course, he will be hoping for a turn of fortune as well.

@arizvi@thenational.ae

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