x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Survival in the Pro League the only goal for Emirates

The coach and players at Emirates are confident that they can turn things round and that the Ras Al Khaimah club will stay in the top-flight, writes Ahmed Rizvi

Optimism surrounds the Emirates club, led by the former Baniyas coach Lutfi Benzarti.
Optimism surrounds the Emirates club, led by the former Baniyas coach Lutfi Benzarti.

The growing sense of optimism surrounding Emirates football club belies their position just above the Pro League relegation places.

There is enthusiasm and expectation permeating from every section of the club, from the management to the players and the fans who are proud and passionate about their team.

This was again demonstrated on Tuesday when one of the more devoted followers, who prefers to remain unnamed, bought every ticket allocated to the visiting team for their match at Sharjah and gifted them to the fans of the Ras Al Khaimah club.

That rising confidence in the team comes on the heels of an energetic performance by the management in the January transfer window.

Having earlier replaced Ghazi Ghrairi, the coach, with Lutfi Benzarti, the man who shaped the current Baniyas squad, they strengthened the team by signing Modibo Diarra, a successful striker at different clubs in the UAE, and the dynamic Uzbek international duo of Alexander Geynrikh and Jasur Hasanov, the first coming from the South Korean club Suwon Bluewings and the second from Qatar Sports Club.

Only Mohsine Moutaouali was retained from the foreign quartet that started the season.

"We have signed good players and we hope those good players will add value to the team in terms of results and the outcome of the season," Mohammed Ghobash, the club's vice chairman, said as he watched a high-energy training session at the club.

"We are at a very challenging stage. All the matches for us seem like [knockout] matches and we hope these new players will keep us afloat."

The four foreigners played together for the first time on Tuesday against Sharjah, and Emirates dominated the game but settled for a 1-1 draw. Still, they remain one point above the relegation zone; Emirates are in 10th place with 11 points, Sharjah are a point behind and Dubai are bottom.

A win would have been their third in succession, but they failed through a mix of ill-fortune and profligacy, with a post denying them once and poor finishing costing them three points.

"We are not disappointed," Ghobash said. "There will be good results and bad results. This is football and this is life. We just have to take things in our stride and keep looking ahead. The past does not matter to us, we are looking at the future."

Benzarti has a similarly positive outlook. After nine defeats in their first 10 league matches, the Tunisian's main focus is to accrue points.

"The important thing for us is not to lose matches," he said. "If we can win, it's great, but the bigger thing is not to lose. We cannot afford that. We lost too many matches in the first half of the season … too many.

"Of course, there will be no easy matches for us. Every match will be difficult and every point crucial."

Benzarti has been successful in avoiding defeat in the last four league matches and the eight-point haul has lifted Emirates from the bottom of the table.

The coach is satisfied with his efforts so far.

"I knew the position of the club was very difficult," he said. "But I also believed it was not impossible to save the season. It is not easy, but it is not impossible.

"As a coach, I am confident we can do it. We have a lot of talented players, a lot of potential in the squad. We have added some very good foreign players.

"I know the football here, I know the mentality. Teams may change, players will change, but I know what to expect. For me, it is not difficult to work in the UAE. I came here a bit late in the season, but I believe I can still turn things around and create a very good team."

Emirates are attempting to stay in the top flight for the first time since a five-season run from 2004 to 2008. They were relegated in 2008 and again in 2010, despite winning the President's Cup, and their highest finish since the dawn of the millennium is 10th.

Benzarti's players, however, share his optimism.

"We are in a difficult situation, yes, but we have a very good chance of turning things around," said Diarra, who has scored five goals in four matches. "We have many young, talented players here and we have to trust our quality.

"The coach is also doing a good job. I know him from before, so I know how he works and I am very comfortable with him. He gives me a lot of confidence.

"So we will do our best to stay in the Pro League and we have a very good chance because we have so many good players."

Geynrikh said: "Time will show where we finish. We just have to focus on working hard. If we do that, I believe everything will be OK."

"The players fully understand the situation and there is a great feeling of responsibility," said the midfielder Haitham Ali. "Every single player is trying his best, showing greater commitment than ever before, whether in training or matches. That is the reason for the change in our results.

"We are gradually proving to our fans and to everyone else that we are a team that deserves to remain in the Pro League."

As Emirates inch their way up the table, the officials acknowledged they cannot afford to relax until the final round of the league.

Mohammed Saif, the team manager, expects this battle of survival to get fierce as the league moves towards the business end of the campaign.

"We are going to see a much tougher competition to stay in the Pro League than in any other season," he said. "Teams like Ajman, Baniyas, Sharjah and Dubai will all be fighting hard to avoid relegation. So it will not be an easy task to remain in the Pro League.

"Except for Al Ain, Al Nasr and Al Jazira, the other teams are virtually at the same level this season. So anything can happen, any result is possible."

At Emirates, however, the management is planning for beyond this season. The merger of Rams and Emirates, the two clubs from Ras Al Khaimah, has given the club a deep pool of talent and resources. That is one of the reason they turned to Benzarti, given his success with the youngsters at Baniyas.

"Our vision is simple: one team, one love for all fans of Ras Al Khaimah," Ghobash said. "We want to create a strong team with a bright future. The results are in the hands of God. We just want to make sure we work hard and do our best."

arizvi@thenational.ae