x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE clubs move the goalposts to Asia in Champions League quest

With a shift in priority towards the continental event, coaches tell Ahmed Rizvi they will give their all in a tournament they have struggled to succeed in previously. Audio

Al Jazira, in white, may have tripped in the Champions League before, but they are prepared for a better performance this time.
Al Jazira, in white, may have tripped in the Champions League before, but they are prepared for a better performance this time.

When Al Jazira fell out of contention for a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League last season, Abel Braga, the coach, talked about the priorities of his team.

"It is important we win the league than drag all the way to the end," the Brazilian said. "Our priority was to win the domestic league and the cup, and we will concentrate more on the Champions League next year."

That has been a common refrain of the UAE club coaches over the past three years. The Champions League has not really been at the top of their wish list and it shows in the performance of the Pro League teams in the continental championship.

Jazira, the best UAE team of recent years, have participated in all three seasons of the new Champions League since 2009, and they have just one win in 18 matches, seven draws and 10 defeats.

Their goals for and against ratio is also a lopsided 19-41. That record hardly inspires confidence ahead of their opening Group A game with Nasaf of Uzbekistan today.

"I hope the boys realise how tough it will be," Lucas Neill, the Jazira captain, tweeted yesterday.

Al Wahda, Al Ahli and Al Ain have made two appearances each, with the first winning two of their 12 matches and losing seven.

Ahli have one win and eight defeats, while Al Ain, the 2003 Asia champions and 2005 finalists, have performed slightly better with four wins from 12 matches and six losses.

Al Shabab, Sharjah and Emirates have also represented the UAE in Asia during this period without much success.

Sharjah, in fact, caused much embarrassment to UAE fans by withdrawing from the 2009 competition after losing four group games to focus on their relegation battle at home.

It is difficult to explain the results of UAE teams in Asia given the performance of the clubs from the region. Saudi Arabia have the same number of places as the UAE each year and 10 of their teams have advanced from the group stages in three years; the country also had four semi-finalists in that period.

Qatar were allowed only two teams each in 2009 and 2010, and yet they had one team in the knockout stages on both occasions while Umm-Salal made it to the last-four in 2009.

Last year, their allotment was increased to four and the one Qatari team which made it through the group stages went on to win the tournament: Al Sadd.

Four clubs have represented Iran in each of the last three competitions and six of them have made it to the knockout stages, with Zob Ahan going as far as the semi-finals in 2010.

So why do the UAE clubs lag behind their neighbours? The general excuse is their lack of experience and the workload.

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"They had to play four important matches in three weeks, and they are tired and exhausted," Braga said in April last year.

The UAE teams, barring a Division One Emirates in 2011, have generally lacked enthusiasm for their Asia campaigns.

The US$40,000 (Dh146,924) prize money for every win in the group stages ($20,000 for a draw and $30,000 in travel subsidy for every away match) does not seem to be enough of an incentive and the Champions League is generally considered a necessary evil that needs to be dealt with.

The attitudes seem to be gradually changing, though. Paulo Bonamigo, the Shabab coach, and Al Nasr's Walter Zenga have already talked about the "honour" of playing in Asia and Baniyas are keen to make an impression on their debut.

Zenga looked almost offended when he was recently asked if Nasr would consider pulling out of the Champions League to focus on winning their first domestic league title since 1986.

"We have worked hard to earn this right," he said.

"It is an honour for us and a matter of pride that we are participating in Asia for the first time.

"This is what we play for - to be able to play in competitions of a higher level. How can we think of giving it up?"

Bonamigo had a similar opinion when asked if the league campaign will be Shabab's bigger priority.

"We realise how difficult it has been to qualify for Asia and now our moment has come to play," Bonamigo said. "We dream of playing at such competitions.

"So we cannot just go there to participate. We cannot cross our hands and say we have to pay more attention to local competitions. It doesn't make sense. We think different here."

Sami Qamzi, the Shabab chairman, went a step further and said they would be willing to sacrifice their position in the Pro League for success in Asia. "The Champions League is at the top of our goals for this season," he said.

"So even if we drop a position or two on the points table [in the Pro League] in trying to achieve our objectives, we don't mind."

Baniyas, who are struggling in ninth on the Pro League, are similarly enthusiastic about Asia with Sultan Ghaferi, their midfielder, saying Champions League success could be compensation for their disappointment in the league.

Given the optimism and enthusiasm at these clubs, this Champions League could finally see a UAE club reach the knockout stages.

Once there, anything is possible.

arizvi@thenational.ae