x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Walter Zenga seeks early retribution at Al Jazira in Arabian Gulf Cup final

A victory over Al Ahli in the Arabian Gulf Cup final will help prove the Italian has turned around the fortunes of the capital club.

Walter Zenga is one win away from claiming silverware for the first time in the UAE. Karim Jaafar / AFP
Walter Zenga is one win away from claiming silverware for the first time in the UAE. Karim Jaafar / AFP

Two World Cups. “World’s best goalkeeper” awards. Serie A and Uefa Cup winners medals. And some titanic domestic and international battles with Diego Maradona.

As a goalkeeper, Walter Zenga has faced some mighty challenges throughout a colourful, mostly triumphant and occasionally heartbreaking career. As a coach, it has very often been turbulent.

Saturday, the 53-year-old Italian legend stands on the verge of a career first. That is, winning a trophy as a coach in the UAE, when his Al Jazira side contest the Arabian Gulf Cup final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.

It is a mountain of a task. Standing in the way are the newly crowned Arabian Gulf League champions, Al Ahli, by some distance the best team in the country this season, a team who beat Al Jazira 3-1 at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium not even two weeks ago.

On one hand, it might seem like a bad time to meet Cosmin Olaroiu’s champions.

On the other, Zenga will believe his team might have rediscovered their form at just the right moment after a run of six matches without a win.

Both Al Ahli and Al Jazira took part in Asian Champions League clashes in midweek. However, Al Jazira will take heart from their 3-2 win away over Al Rayyan on Wednesday night, a result that confirmed progress into the knockout stages of Asia’s premier competition.

Trailing 2-1 to the champions of Qatar, Al Jazira squared the match on the hour mark thanks to Ali Mabkhout’s equaliser. Felipe Caicedo’s injury-time effort was then turned into his own net by Rayyan’s Cho Yong-hyung, to dramatically seal the Abu Dhabi club’s qualification to the final 16.

Al Ahli can only look on in envy at Al Jazira’s early progress.

The previous night, their scoreless draw with Saudi’s Al Hilal meant that, although they lead Group D on goal difference from Iran’s Sepahan, they could be eliminated if results do not go their way on the final match day. Tomorrow in Al Ain, Olaroiu will no doubt have an eye on Tuesday’s last group match against Al Sadd, in Doha.

It is a situation Zenga will look to exploit. Any vulnerability in the Al Ahli camp, whether from fatigue or squad rotation, will no doubt be pounced on by the Italian to give his team a boost ahead of the big kickoff.

If his time in the UAE has shown anything, it is that Zenga will not be found wanting when it comes to passion and motivating his team.

His spells at Al Ain (2007) and Al Nasr (2011-13) did not bring any silverware. What they did provide were endless trawling of the technical area, brave tactical decisions, outspoken comments and run-ins with the press and football authorities.

In 2011/12, Zenga’s Nasr side finished second in the league, but a massive 14 points behind Al Ain.

With his sacking by Al Nasr last summer, it seemed his best chance of success in the UAE had disappeared. Then, in late October, Al Jazira came calling. Luis Milla had been fired after a poor run of results, and Zenga was tasked with bringing the faltering club, champions only two years ago, back to the forefront of Emirati football.

A trophy tomorrow would present a quick return on the club’s investment, although improving the team’s league position will surely be the priority next season.

For now, Zenga has a chance to write himself into the record books but must find a way to stop the threat of Grafite, Ciel and Hugo Viana.

Zenga can expect no respite in Al Ahli’s desire to win the league cup.

Olaroiu will not allow complacency to creep in. The trophy may be considered the least important of those for which Al Ahli remain in contention, but with the league title already secured, a chance of an unprecedented quadruple, or even domestic treble, remains a possibility.

Al Ahli will be going all out to post their second trophy of the 2013/14 season.

After that, thoughts will turn to the President’s Cup final on May 18.

One suspects that Zenga will care little for the remainder of Al Ahli’s season beyond the final tomorrow night. A win will at long last bring him tangible reward, for the first time, on UAE soil. And in the bigger picture, a first step in making Al Jazira the country’s most-feared club once again.

akhaled@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE