x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Pro League: Ali Kasheif confident Al Jazira and Luis Milla will raise the bar

UAE shot stopper one of the few who still believe destiny of Pro League title is not a foregone conclusion.

The Pro League title is still possible, says Kasheif. Mike Young / The National
The Pro League title is still possible, says Kasheif. Mike Young / The National

As the UAE's No 1 goalkeeper, Ali Kasheif usually forms the last line of defence for both club and country.

It is perhaps a position the Al Jazira custodian finds hard to shake, given his comments ahead of tonight's resumption of the Pro League: Kasheif, unlike many of his footballing brethren, is refusing to concede the title to Al Ain.

"Of course not, there are still eight rounds remaining," the Emirati said this week in an interview with the Pro League website. "We can do better in these final eight games and keep challenging for the top spot. This is always our target."

While still mathematically possible, that target is growing smaller by the week. Al Ain, comfortably champions last year, enjoy an eight-point lead at the top of the table - they are 11 better off than fourth-placed Jazira - and have been defeated only twice in 18 matches.

In Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman, they boast the top-flight's leading goalscorer and arguably its starriest contestant; a second successive championship crown, and 11th in all, seems certain.

Only last month, though, Jazira represented realistic rivals. The Abu Dhabi club had thrashed Al Dhafra to move within six points of the summit, and at the same time extended an already impressive sequence to one defeat in 16 matches in all competitions.

However, the final whistle blew that night, too, on Paulo Bonamigo's short tenure at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Having arrived from Al Shabab last summer, the Brazilian was ousted and promptly replaced by Luis Milla, Spain's Olympics coach.

Apparently, change is not necessarily a good thing. In Milla's five matches in charge, Jazira have registered a solitary victory - last week's Etisalat Cup semi-final win against Al Wahda - and entertain Al Wasl tonight knowing anything less than three points severely undermines Kasheif's cool confidence. Yet the UAE No 1 retains faith in his new manager.

"Bringing in a new coach has increased the competitive spirit in the squad as we all try to impress him and book our places in the starting line-up," Kasheif said. "He needs more time to settle and impose his footballing philosophy on the team."

Jazira, of course, remain competitive in three competitions, although thus far, their Asian Champions League campaign has disappointed. One point from the opening two Group A fixtures makes next week's encounter with Qatar's Al Jaish a veritable must-win game.

Yet Kasheif maintains that his side can progress to the knockout stages, if not farther. "Al Jazira represents the UAE when participating in this regional tournament, and we have enough experience to overcome the setback of losing our first match against Tractor Sazi Tabriz and drawing at home to Al Shabab," he said.

"There have been many occasions when teams lose their opening game but go on to make the final."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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