There will be no reunion between Real Madrid and their former midfield star Lassana Diarra when the Champions League holders take on Diarra’s current employers Al Jazira in the FIFA Club World Cup semi-finals in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
Diarra was not listed in Al Jazira’s squad for the tournament, with the official word being that the Frenchman is ruled out through injury. However it is understood Diarra is already back on home soil with a view to leaving the club he joined only last summer.
The 32-year-old has not featured for Al Jazira since the first week of November and his absence was expected to significantly weaken the club’s prospects of success in this competition.
Al Jazira qualified for the Club World Cup having won the UAE Arabian Gulf League title last season. The league winners of the host country gain a place in the Club World Cup playoffs.
They came through a poor game against Oceania champions Auckland City last Wednesday thanks to a single Romarinho goal but were indebted to goalkeeper Ali Khaseif for making a string of saves to keep out the New Zealand side.
Nothing was expected from their clash with AFC Asian Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds at Zayed Sports City on Saturday but Ali Mabkhout’s strike was enough to see off the Japanese team.
“It’s a great moment for us; living a dream,” says former Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, now working as Al Jazira’s goalkeeping coach.
“In such a small country, football is not a big, big sport and we made a big effort to be in the semi final. I still cannot believe that.”
Al Jazira are marshalled in attack not only by Mabkhout and the Brazilian Romarinho but also ex-Anderlecht star Mbark Boussoufa.
Their strikeline though was dealt another blow with the exile of forward Ahmed Khalil, who joined on a free transfer from Shabab Al Ahli Dubai in summer in one of the richest deals the UAE league has ever seen. However, like Diarra, he is reckoned to be in a standoff with Al Jazira and will probably return to Dubai on a permanent basis in January.
“Last season we could repeat the team that made good results,” says Almunia. “This year we had many casualties, many injuries.
“It’s difficult but the young people who came on the pitch are surprising everybody. They are doing fantastic. Al Jazira with these kids has a fantastic future.”
The Al Jazira chairman is Manchester City owner His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan but there is not as much heavy spending going on here as there is in east Manchester. Al Jazira are not part of the City Football Group despite the Sheikh’s chairmanship.
They do however boast an ex-Barcelona coach like City. Dutchman Henk Ten Cate, who also coached at Chelsea, is at the helm but if you’re looking for football in the Pep Guardiola strain then you are going to be disappointed. Al Jazira’s play is predicated on solid defence and the odd chance created on a set piece.
“The main thing that we have is passion; the heart we have to play. The effort we make all together on the pitch is the secret.
“Technically we are good but not as good as the Japanese team or Auckland City. But we play with passion, with high intensity and this is our secret.”
That’s not going to be enough against Real Madrid and their world class attack. Al Jazira simply do not possess the weapons to hurt the European champions but in many ways will view their presence alongside los Blancos in the last four as victory in itself.
“I don’t think Real Madrid will be afraid of us,” says Almunia. “We will do the same. We will play with high intensity, with massive effort from everybody.
“This game is a trophy for us already. It’s a game to remember for everyone; an opportunity to play 90 minutes against one of the biggest in the world. This wouldn’t happen to too many people here. It will be a great day despite the result.”
This will be the biggest club match in the history of UAE football with a full house expected at the magnificent Zayed Sports City Stadium later this week. In the other semi-final Copa Libertadores champions Gremio go up against Pachuca of Mexico, who won the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year.
Madrid should easily sweep aside Al Jazira and will be better supported in the stadium too despite this being Al Jazira’s turf. Madrid and Barcelona – as well as Manchester City – are the teams the locals identify with most and the local league is somewhat unloved by natives.
Al Ain – once home of Asamoah Gyan – are the most attractive team and Al Jazira can scarcely draw 5,000 for a typical league game in their well-appointed Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium.
This season has been difficult on the field, let alone due to the trouble caused with Khalil and Diarra. There is unlikely to be a title celebration at the end of this season. They are languishing in fifth in this 12-team league having won only four of their 10 games so far.
Their tournament thus far has been a pleasant distraction from their league form but after a hefty defeat against Madrid it will be back to reality following the winter break.