Dark horses Al Jazeera dream of AFC Cup success
Kuala Lumpur: One of Jordan's historic clubs is mounting an unlikely 2018 AFC Cup challenge after years of struggle as Al Jazeera dream of replicating the Continental success of domestic rivals Al Faisaly.
Jordan’s biggest rivalry today is the famous Amman derby between Al Faisaly and Al Wehdat, but long before Al Wehdat had become a dominant force in Jordanian football, there was the duopoly of Al Faisaly and Al Ahli. Al Jazeera were the first side to break that duopoly when they lifted their maiden Jordan League title in 1952, just five years into their existence.
Back-to-back league triumphs followed in 1955 and 1956, as Al Jazeera replaced Al Faisaly as Al Ahli’s main rivals and the country’s second most successful club with the league now expanding to six teams.
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The Dark Years
The 1956 war put an end to Al Jazeera’s domestic dominance, and by the mid 1970s, the club had dropped to the second division for the first time in their history. Despite two cup triumphs in the 1980s, Al Jazeera never truly recovered to their glory days; winning back-to-back titles was now a distant memory. The biggest cause for celebration for the Amman club was surviving relegation on multiple occasions. That too became unattainable in 2004 as Al Jazeera waved bye to top division football once again, spending two seasons in the second tier.
As was the case half a century ago, Al Jazeera’s revival coincided with a reversal at Al Faisaly. Having finished third in the league in the 2013-14 season, Al Jazeera were drafted into the 2015 AFC Cup after Al Faisaly suffered financial troubled that caused them to withdraw from the continental competition.
AFC Cup qualification was just the boost the club needed after years of struggles; Al Jazeera pipped Palestine’s Taraji Wadi Al Nes and Bahrain’s Al Hidd to second place in their 2015 AFC Cup group, joining Syria’s Al Shorta in the Round of 16.
The quarter-final proved a step too far for Al Jazeera who took plenty of heart from their inaugural Continental campaign despite losing to Syria’s Al Jaish in the knock-out stage.
That same season, Al Jazeera finished runners-up in the league as Al Faisaly narrowly escaped relegation, finishing just two points above the drop zone, but a second continental involvement for Al Jazeera would have to wait after Al Faisaly snatched the Jordan Cup title, taking up the 2015 AFC Cup spot.
A Historic 2018 Journey
Al Jazeera have had a stellar 2018 so far, winning silverware for the first time in 31 years with their second-ever Jordan Cup title. A fairy tale run in the AFC Cup sees them poised for the Zonal Final against reigning champions Air Force Club of Iraq in August.
Tunisian head coach Chihab Ellili led the team to top a tough group ahead of Air Force Club, Malkiya and Al Suwaiq. Al Jazeera came from behind twice thanks to two penalties from Musa Al Taamari and Mardik Maridikian to get their campaign to a positive start with a 2-2 away draw against the holders.
Al Taamari announced himself as the undisputed star of the team as his winning goals secured six points from the next two fixtures; a 1-0 win over Bahrain’s Malkiya and a 3-2 comeback against Al Suwaiq in Oman.
The unbeaten run continued with an emphatic 4-0 thumping of Al Suwaiq in the reverse fixture before qualification was sealed with another draw against Air Force Club. Beating Malkiya 2-1 on the final matchday was the icing on the cake, ensuring the Jordanians finished top of Group A. Al Taamari was amongst the goals again, taking his group stage tally to four goals.
Waiting in the West Zone Semi-Finals were none other than domestic rivals Al Faisaly, again Al Jazeera’s success would have to come at the expense of the same team. Al Taamari’s first-half strike was cancelled by Lukasz Gikiewicz as Al Jazeera went into the away second leg with a slight disadvantage from the 1-1 draw at home. Ellili’s men would again count on inspiration from Al Taamari, whose sixth goal of the campaign earned a historic win for Al Jazeera, driving them into the Zonal final.
A dream year it may have been, until that point that is. Over the summer, Al Jazeera lost coach Ellili who returned to his home country to join ES Sahel. No replacement has been signed as the club continue their preparation for the Zonal final and the new domestic season under caretaker coach Amjad Abu Taiemah.
Al Jazeera’s biggest challenge, however, will be how to cope with the departure of talisman Al Taamari who earned a move to European football, joining Cyprus side APOEL in the summer. There is talent beyond Al Taamari in the squad for sure; Syrian international Mardik Mardikian is a key attacking outlet and so is Ahmed Al Essawi who renewed his contract with the club recently. So, can the Jordanians keep their dream run going and end Air Force Club’s title defence?
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