The Norwich man plotting how to stop Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo
PUBLISHED: 15:28 13 December 2017 | UPDATED: 20:51 13 December 2017
Al Jazira will bid for an huge shock at the Fifa Club World Cup when they take on Real Madrid in Abu Dhabi – with a Norwich man hoping to mastermind the downfall of a European giant. Michael Bailey spoke to Liam Weeks about the latest chapter of his UAE adventure.
It has the potential to be spectacular – even by Abu Dhabi standards: Al Jazira aiming to topple arguably the biggest club in world football, with a Norwich man key to their plans.
Former Norwich City performance analyst Liam Weeks is now heading up the same department at last season’s United Arab Emirates Pro-League champions.
And the Abu Dhabi club’s stunning 1-0 win over Japan’s Asian Champions League winners Urawa Red Diamonds in Fifa’s Club World Cup on Saturday, meant none other than defending champions and European Champions League winners Real Madrid await in the semi-finals (5pm GMT).
“We knew when the draw was made two months ago we could potentially play Real and we’d been trying to steer away from that,” said Weeks.
“We had to beat Auckland City, beat Urawa. But as soon as the full-time whistle went on Saturday, you could just see the excitement.
“The entire team has been smiling, the entire city. Emiratis are stopping us in the streets to talk about football and wish us luck, shake our hands. There’s a real football fever surrounding the city at the moment.
“It’s up there with the biggest games of my career, and probably the biggest game any team in the UAE has ever played in. I was involved in a play-off final and important games to keep Norwich in the Premier League or to get promotion, massive derbies against Ipswich. But this is up there with the very biggest.”
Al Jazira only qualified for this year’s Club World Cup as domestic champions of the host nation, with the Sheikh Mansour-owned club winning the Arabian Gulf League in record-breaking style last term.
Now pitted against the world’s six continental champions, Al Jazira are on the verge of achieving the remarkable.
“The UAE has 8m people living in it and only 1.2m are Emirates,” said the 35-yearold former Notre Dame High School pupil from Eaton. “Half of those are male and when you look at how many can actually play football and are within say 18 to 32, it’s a small number and an incredible achievement.
“We can have three foreign players and one from Asia. Everyone else must be Emirati – and we are beating teams that have won their continental competitions.”
Weeks has had challenges to overcome. He had to find footage from a field to help his side prepare for their initial Club World Cup play-off against amateur Oceania Champions League winners Auckland City, which Al Jazira also won 1-0.
Things should be more straightforward ahead of their semi-final, with a 43,000 sell-out crowd awaiting inside Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium.
“There should be a thing or two online – I hear their quite decent number seven plays out on the left,” Weeks joked.
“I have to pick out a player’s strengths, weaknesses and a team’s vulnerabilities. Fortunately Real are not absolutely firing on all cylinders this season, so there are opportunities for me to show them defensive frailties.
“I’m hoping they are just going to turn up and try to play, because they could be quite surprised by the level they are up against.
“For my players, this is the biggest game of their careers. They’ve been saying to me all week, don’t show us anything – we know this team better than any in our league, because all they do is watch Spanish football. They love Barcelona and Real Madrid, so it’s a dream come true.
“Our right-back absolutely idolises Cristiano Ronaldo, and he’s going to be up against him trying to stop the best player in the world.
“It’s a cliché but it’s 11 men against 11. It’s a one-off game. Anything can happen and we have the support of not only the UAE but the entire Arab world. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you have such support behind you and the game means so much.”
Al Jazira’s key men will include Moroccan international attacking midfielder Mbark Boussoufa, Brazilian forward Romarinho and Emirati striker Ali Mabkhout – scorer of 33 goals in 25 league games last term.
And then there is Weeks: a Norwich supporter who grew up in the city and spent a decade at the Canaries, until relegation to League One in 2009.
“It’s been good fun out here – this is my ninth season and I love it,” added Weeks.
“I’d already signed my contract for Al Ain when Paul Lambert arrived and I’d already made my mind up that I wanted to experience something different.
“I haven’t regretted it at all. As much as I miss Norwich and one day I might go back, this has been one hell of an adventure.
“We are in the Asian Champions League again this season and we’ll go to Tractor Sazi Tabriz in Iran, Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia and then a team from Uzbekistan or Qatar.
“So it’s places you’d never expect to go and for me, it’s really interesting doing the analysis of all these different styles and different players that nobody has heard of, and being able to help these boys fulfil their potential – because there are some very good players here.”
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