After a disappointing international break for the UAE in which they drew against Lebanon and Syria, attention turned to club football as the UAE Pro League resumed with seven matches over the weekend, and there was plenty to talk about in matchweek three.
1. Al-Jazira march on despite Mabkhout drought
Three games into the 2021-22 UAE Pro League season and last season’s top scorer Ali Mabkhout is yet to get off the mark. A concern for Al-Jazira’s all-time top scorer? Perhaps, but it did not feel like an issue for the reigning champions on Saturday as coach Marcel Keizer’s men extended their unbeaten run with a comfortable 2-1 win over Al-Nasr.
Teenage winger Oumar Traore, a revelation in the second half of last season after joining in January from his native Mali, opened the scoring with a well-placed finish and new arrival from Sporting Lisbon Abdoulay Diaby demonstrated what he adds to the side with a pacey run down the left and a pinpoint drilled cross for Zayed Al-Ameri to tap in home the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s second of the night.
Sebastian Tagliabue halved the deficit with 10 seconds to go, but his goal will have more significance for him personally than to the team as he edges ever closer to Mabkhout in the race to become the UAE top division’s all-time top scorer, now sitting on 166 goals, just five behind the goal-shy Al-Jazira forward’s 171.
Seven points from nine mean that Al-Jazira’s title defense is off to a solid start and their faithful will find further solace in the fact that Mabkhout had also failed to find the back of the net in the first three matches of last season, then went on to finish as top scorer with 25 goals.
2. Al-Anbari deserves recognition after 10-man Sharjah comeback
The result of this matchweek belonged to Sharjah. The team produced a heroic second-half display against Al-Wasl to come from two goals down and continue their perfect start of the season despite playing with 10 men for all of 80 minutes.
Fabio de Lima opened Al-Wasl’s account 10 minutes in from the spot after Al-Hassan Saleh was sent off for the foul on him. The Brazilian-born UAE international then forced Sharjah defender Abdulla Ghanim to fire into his own net just before the break following a deft cross into the corridor of uncertainty.
An hour into the game, all looked to have been decided, but Sharjah coach Abdulaziz Al-Anbari had other plans. The former club captain shuffled his side, introducing striker Ben Malango for right-back Khalid Al Dhanhani and bringing Luan Pereira for a box-to-box role in midfield.
The result? Pereira made a darting run into the box minutes later, winning a penalty that was converted by Caio Lucas. The substitute then produced an assist of the season contender merely four minutes later, backheeling for Malango to power home the equalizer.
With momentum on their side, Al-Anbari’s men left it late, but delivered the goods with seconds to play after former Everton midfielder Bernard fed Malango on the counter and the Congolese drilled into the bottom corner from 30 yards out for a winner that will live long in the memory of Sharjah fans, all to the credit of their league-winning manager, who further cemented his legendary status at the Sharjah Stadium.
3. Al-Ain rebuild job nearly complete
It might be early days, and a lot will certainly change between now and the end of the season, but for the first time in a very long time, Al-Ain are top of the table and look good value for it, too.
The 13-time league champions and the UAE’s only Asian champions have struggled to find their identity over the past few seasons, slipping as low as sixth in the table by the end of last season, but things seem to have finally changed at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Intelligent recruitment saw enforcements across the pitch, with Tunisian international defender Yassine Meriah arriving from Greek side Olympiacos and Argentine playmaker Cristian Guanca brought on loan from Saudi Arabia’s Al-Shabab, among others.
In the absence of their top assist maker last season, Bandar Al-Ahbabi, it was one of the new recruits, Moroccan international Soufiane Rahimi, who produced an excellent cross for goal machine Laba Kodjo to score the winner against Bani Yas, ending a four-game losing run against their Abu Dhabi rivals and maintaining a perfect record in three games for coach Sergei Rebrov’s men.
4. Alarm bells ring at Al-Wahda before continental clash
While Sharjah will go into the AFC Champions League round of 16 buoyed by their victory over Al-Wasl, concern will be the order of the day at Al-Nahyan Stadium as Al-Wahda failed to win for the second game in a row.
Head coach Henk ten Cate opted to leave out the likes of solid defender Lucas Pimenta as he fielded a lineup featuring only the four foreigners registered for the continental competition in preparation for facing domestic rivals Sharjah on Tuesday.
Away at lowly Khorfakkan, playing only their third-ever season in the top division, Al-Wahda looked lackluster, needing as long as 73 minutes to get their first effort on target, a tame Joao Pedro header.
Yes, Al-Wahda remain unbeaten after three games, but their only win came against newly promoted Al-Orooba on the latter’s top flight debut, and their back-to-back draws against Bani Yas and Khorfakkan will send the alarm bells ringing ahead of arguably the biggest game of their season.
5. Bahrain’s Madan an inspired signing for Al-Orooba
Now sitting at the bottom end of the UAE Pro League table are newly promoted Emirates Club and Al-Orooba, the latter appearing in the top division for the first time in their history. It was a steep learning curve for the Fujairah-based side, who lost their opening two games 4-0 and 5-0 against Al-Wahda and Al-Nasr, respectively.
But by gameweek three, Al-Orooba looked more confident in themselves, like they had finally got the hang of what playing at this level is all about. They collected their first-ever Pro League point with a 1-1 draw against star-studded Shabab Al-Ahli.
One man who excelled on Saturday is Bahraini international midfielder Ali Madan. In the summer, Madan became the first Bahraini to play in the UAE Pro League, and it is proving to be an inspired signing already.
In Al-Orooba’s low block and counterattack system, Madan’s mazy runs and pace are a perfect fit, so much so that after three games, he tops the league charts in terms of dribbles completed. Against Shabab Al-Ahli, he delivered an end product, too, with his cross from the right resulting in Ahmed Moosa Saqer’s equalizer late in the first half. The early signs are good for Madan, and now it is time to see whether he can kick on from there and continue to impress.