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Al-Jazira’s chance of glory

Al-Jazira players celebrate their win against Urawa Reds, the victory that got them through to the FIFA World Club Cup semi-final against Real Madrid. (Reuters)
DUBAI: Only Barcelona and Manchester United would be able to mount any kind of argument against the statement that Real Madrid is the biggest club in the world.
Whatever your opinion there can be no denying that the name screams glamor, excitement, tradition and history. And tomorrow this global titan will be sharing a pitch with Al-Jazira in the semifinals of the FIFA Club World Cup. If you can’t get excited about playing the most successful team in the history of European football then you might as well go home.
Al-Jazira are home and are tasked with sending the Spaniards back to the Bernabeu empty-handed. If they were to succeed it would of course be a major shock. They are not just playing for the glory of Abu Dhabi or even just the United Arab Emirates but for the whole of Asia. Nobody is expecting a win but they can do a great deal for the reputation of the continental scene.
It is fair to say that ‘the East’ does not have the best of records in the competition. This is despite the fact that the tournament has usually taken place in Asia, which means, as well as home advantage, it has a numerical one with two horses in the race as opposed to one for every other confederation.
There have been a number of appearances in the last four but usually the presence of the South American or European champions has proven to be an insurmountable hurdle. That changed a year ago and Kashima Antlers went on to give Real Madrid a real scare in the final.
After Karim Benzema gave the Europeans an early lead, almost 70,000 fans at Yokohama International Stadium prepared themselves for an onslaught, but goals from Gaku Shibasaki either side of half-time put Kashima in the lead.
Suddenly, we were faced with the prospect of a team that had not even won the AFC Champions League becoming world champions. A hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo put paid to such dreams but they were pleasant while they lasted.
Now it is time for Al-Jazira to dream. The 1-0 win over Urawa Reds at the weekend was a fine performance against a team that defeated Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal in the final of the 2017 AFC Champions League in November.
What impressed against the Japanese team was the sheer hard work of the UAE outift.
“We might not have the best players,” said Al-Jazira boss Henk Ten Cate after the win. “but in team spirit, I have the best team. They fight for each other, they challenge and they have a big heart. We are a team that is very difficult to beat and we will fight until the last minute.”
It was not a million miles from the win by the same scoreline against Auckland City in the previous round. The losers had plenty of possession but just couldn’t get the goal against a hard-working team that took their chance when it came.
“It was proven that a good spirit and a fighting spirit and the willpower to do something good can bring you very far,” the Dutchman added.
Every drop of that spirit will be necessary once again but by itself that won’t be enough to defeat the 12-time European champions. It will need Al-Jazira’s biggest star to be firing on all cylinders.
The signs are good as Ali Mabkhout scored the only goal of the game against Urawa. The 27-year-old striker has been in excellent form. Wednesday is not just a chance to collect some Asian pride but an opportunity for one of the continent’s top strikers to put himself in the middle of the global stage and perhaps the shop window.
It was hoped that he would get a chance to parade his talents at the 2018 World Cup. That is not going to happen as the UAE fell by the wayside on the road to Russia. Mabkhout has not stopped scoring however. Last season he netted 33 times in 25 league games.
A goal or two against the biggest club around and he may get the big move that he deserves and give Asian football its biggest ever club result.