Al-Jazira did the Middle East proud
Fans say they are the Pride of Abu Dhabi, coach Henk Ten Cate said they were playing for the whole of the United Arab Emirates but, at the very least Al-Jazira were flying the flag for the Middle East and now the whole of the region will be claiming them for their own.
That there was a little feeling of disappointment as a team from the UAE — one that had made zero impact in the 2017 Asian Champions League — lost to Real Madrid says it all. It was a controlled and battling performance from the hosts who may not be able to match those titans of world football in terms of ability but were more than their equals when it came to heart, fighting spirit and determination.
The important thing was that the hosts left the pitch with no regrets. They gave everything and almost got everything in return.
It was almost a classic Al-Jazira performance
The gameplan that worked against Auckland City and Urawa Reds in the previous rounds almost worked against Real Madrid. Al-Jazira had just 40 percent of the possession against the New Zealanders in the playoff victory and had been outshot 17 to five.
That share of the ball fell by a further five percentage points in each of the next two games to be at 30 percent by the end of their Madrid match. At half-time, the Spaniards had recorded 17 attempts on goal and yet were behind. It was looking like another counter-attacking master class when the hosts scored right at the start of the second half only for the goal to be just ruled out for offside. The sight of Ronaldo telling his team-mates to keep their heads was a rewarding one.
Their stars put themselves in the shop window as did the coach
Ali Khaseif has been the goalkeeper of the tournament and none of the striking talent assembled managed to find a way past the 30-year-old. His exit early in the second half through injury was a blow for the hosts but he may find himself back in the national team set-up before long and deservedly so.
Then there were the twin goal threats of Ali Mabkhout and Romarinho.
Both have enhanced their reputations over the last few days and there may well be a few questions over availability coming their way in the next few weeks. So much the better. Perhaps the most impressive performer was the coach. Ten Cate has certainly shown that he can get a lot out of a team, no matter what the opposition. Few gave Al-Jazira a chance going into the tournament but under the Dutchman, they almost went all the way.
There is pride and passion in the UAE
Attendances in the UAE league are often depressingly small with Abu Dhabi one of the worst offenders. Yet more than 36,000 came out in force on Wednesday. Sure, the opposition was a certain Real Madrid and there was a prize of a final spot in the 2017 Club World Cup final at stake, but it was encouraging to see much of a big local crowd cheering on a local team. It was not exactly a cauldron of passion but it was a real football atmosphere and showed that when the conditions are right, Abu Dhabi is capable of responding.
Al-Jazira not only gave pride to Asia, they gave hope to Saudi Arabia
It was not supposed to be much of a contest. How could a team that is far from a giant in Asian terms, even West Asian terms, live with the biggest club in the world with all their megastars? The answer was simple: Through hard-work, good organization, great coaching, a little luck and self-belief it can be done.
The same attitude and intensive preparation should be on display at the 2018 World Cup from all five of Asia’s representatives in Russia. Saudi Arabia are at the World Cup for the first time since 2006 and nobody expects them to get out of their group. A little Al-Jazira style application and attitude and they can dare to dream.