x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Walter Zenga's Al Nasr boys are fighting for recognition

Coach has got best out of lesser names and opposing coach Quique Sanchez Flores also commands respect and loyalty from team.

Al Nasr coach Walter Zenga.
Al Nasr coach Walter Zenga.

Dubai // Earlier this month, during one of Al Nasr's matches, Walter Zenga was pacing the sidelines, animated as always and screaming out instructions.

And then, as one of his players was brought to the ground by an ugly tackle, the Italian's voice rose higher by more than a few decibels, forcing the referee to urge him to tone it down.

"I told him this is my normal voice," Zenga said later. "As a goalkeeper, you need to have a loud voice because you have to be heard by your teammates in noisy, packed stadiums."

Besides being loud, goalkeepers can be a mercurial lot. Closer to home, Majed Nasser is a prime example.

They have to be combative and fearless as well, crashing into charging strikers and launching themselves over bodies, braving boots, knees and elbows, with little concern for their own well-being.

Zenga had an abundance of those traits and he is among the best goalkeepers the game has ever seen.

As a coach now, he is drilling those qualities into his players and the transformation of Nasr, during his time in charge, from perennial mid-table club into one of the league's front-runners, is a testimony to that.

And that change has not come through writing massive cheques.

Nasr have just one national team player: Habib Fardan.

Al Ahli have five men - Ahmed Khalil, Ismail Al Hammadi, Majed Hassan, Abdulaziz Sanqoor and Abdulaziz Haikal - playing for Mahdi Ali's team. Al Ain have four of them - the irrepressible Omar Abdulrahman, Mohammed Ahmed, Dawood Sulaiman and Mohannad Salem.

Zenga also does not have superstars like Asamoah Gyan, Grafite or Luiz Jimenez at his command, but he has managed to transform Leonardo Lima into one of the most influential players in the league.

And then there is the combative Italian Giuseppe Mascara; the way he tried to soften up Sepahan's Mohammed Reza Khalatbari in the Champions League clash on Tuesday was a glimpse into the team's psyche.

The Nasr team is a not just about Lima or Mascara, though, as Zenga often points out.

"We have played a number of matches without Lima and the team has showed a good level in those games," he said. "I am not saying this to minimise the role of Lima, but I just want to emphasise that we have very good Emirati players and I dream of a day when we play with only local players."

Taking one small step toward that dream, Zenga send out 11 Emirati players against Sepahan on Tuesday. "You must be joking," said a journalist as he went through the line-up.

The Italian has elicited many similar responses in his time at Nasr, but he has never lost faith in his players. And his trust has been reciprocated by the players.

"I know some people will agree with me and some people will not," Zenga said.

"Some people will understand what I am trying to do and others won't. But this is my job.

"For me, the most important thing is the team and the players are united around me.

"This gives the coach a fearless attitude. I have nothing to fear and I am not scared of facing any challenges."

Quique Sanchez Flores enjoys similar loyalty among his players at Ahli.

Since his arrival at the Rashid Stadium in November, 2011, the former Valencia and Benfica manager has turned a star-studded but under-performing squad into a formidable unit.

But unlike Zenga, Sanchez Flores signifies soft power. Soft-spoken, he chooses his words well and has kept out of controversies.

The Spaniard has kept his emotions in check, even when he has been questioned over the prickly issue of keeping Ahmed Khalil on the bench.

"I see all my players as my children, or brothers, both inside and outside the stadium," Sanchez Flores said recently.

"I love them all and I want them to give their best for the team."

The players have rarely disappointed Sanchez Flores.

Last year, they won the Etisalat Cup and this season, they have reached the semi-final of the President's Cup and are second on the league's point table behind champions Al Ain.

Nasr are six points behind Ahli (45) in fourth and Zenga's men will be hoping to close that gap when the two sides meet tonight. A derby, it should be an engrossing affair.

arizvi@thenational.ae