x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A welcome Abu Dhabi derby distraction

Al Jazira and Al Wahda have not had the best of seasons so far, but the showdown in the capital did not disappoint.

Al Jazira defeated Al Wahda 4-2 in the Abu Dhabi derby.
Al Jazira defeated Al Wahda 4-2 in the Abu Dhabi derby.

Thank goodness for derbies. When the ground is shifting beneath your feet, when old assumptions no longer are valid, the appearance of your arch-rival can provide focus and simplicity. "Those guys again! No matter our troubles, we have to beat them."

So it was for Al Jazira and Al Wahda last night as they renewed the capital city's rivalry, arguably the most intense in the league. Both clubs probably appreciated the diversion.

Champions of the previous two league seasons, one each, they approach the midpoint of the 2011/12 campaign still attempting to find the confidence and equilibrium that so certainly was theirs in the recent past.

Jazira charged to their first league title last year, losing only once in 22 games and finishing 12 points ahead of their nearest rival. They clinched the Pro League in the 19th week and came within two games of the first unbeaten season in modern football history.

Their dominance is threatened by both Al Ain and Al Shabab, both of whom defeated them in the first half this season and were ahead of them in the table when the game kicked off.

The Jazira club who poured in 64 goals last term have many of the same faces in the squad, but they will be lucky to score 50 in the current campaign. The heart of their team, the Emirati midfielders Ibrahim Diaky and Subait Khater, seemed to have slipped into senescence almost overnight, and Jazira continue to play without the injured first-choice goalkeeper Ali Kasheif, the best in the league a year ago. They also are fighting the invisible hand of history, which has punished defending champions the previous six seasons.

Those half-dozen champions - in order, Wahda, Al Ahli, Al Wasl, Shabab, Ahli and Wahda again - dropped an average of 20 points in the following season, a huge number in a 22-game schedule.

Wahda face more profound challenges. The club spent liberally while powering to the 2010 league title, but they plunged 29 points last season and fell to fifth, and they now clearly are in cost-cutting mode.

The team yesterday completed the sale of Basheer Saeed, a defensive stalwart, to Al Ahli. Before the season, Wahda sent the useful midfielder Abdulraheem Jumaa to Jazira, and they failed to take advantage of the "fourth foreigner" rule until September, when Wasl and Diego Maradona decided they had no use for the Oman international Mohammed Shaibah and loaned him to Wahda - who slotted him directly into their back four.

Other issues: the UAE international Hamdan Al Kamali would prefer to join the France side Lyon, but Wahda have blocked the move; Magrao, the Brazilian who had been orchestrating the attack, suffered a toe injury, leaving the young Emiratis Yaqoob Yousuf and Khalid Jalal to patrol the middle of the field.

Wahda have done well to remain within hailing distance of the leaders, but their coach, Josef Hickersberger, knows reinforcements are unlikely.

"I'm quite sure we will not change players during the transfer window," he said.

"We will stick with the players we have and try to get the best possible position in the league, and so far I'm really surprised about our position.

"We have not been like Wasl and especially Al Ain, who have spent a lot of money on players like [Asamoah] Gyan and [Mirel] Radoi.

"I can't complain about a lack of motivation; other than Basheer, who wanted away. The rest have kept a very good attitude."

Making do with less is new ground for Wahda, who outbid Jazira for Fernando Baiano in 2009 and then watched him lead the 2010 championship run, and who brought in Hugo and Magrao ahead of the Club World Cup in December of that year.

But the current approach is grounded in reality. Wahda are sellers, not buyers.

Last night, Wahda were the aggressors for most of the match, and led 2-1 into the final 15 minutes before Jazira roused themselves.

Some calculated risks by Franky Vercauteren, the coach, paid dividends in the 4-2 victory.

He chose to employ four forwards in the latter stages of an entertaining game, and Jazira's pressure led to a goal by Ali Mabkhout, a penalty that Matias Delgado converted and a clinching goal in injury time from Bare, one of the late substitutes. Said the Belgian coach: "Our substitutes brought pressure, danger, goals, yes?"

He also noted that three points moved his side back to second place, four points behind Al Ain. "We are back in the running," he said.

Hickersberger and Wahda were disappointed but not shattered.

Their games with Jazira are important, but a deep undercurrent of respect runs beneath the rivalry, and playing well against them means something.

"The players put in a very good performance," Hickersberger said. "They deserved more than this defeat."

That goodness for derbies. To win is to be elated. To play well in noble defeat is to be comforted.