The UAE Pro League returned over the weekend after a month-long hiatus that saw disappointments for the national team in its 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and for Al-Wahda in the AFC Champions League quarter-final.
But continental frustrations were forgotten for a while as matchday 7 produced some thrilling encounters, including two head-to-head clashes between teams in the top five, while the competition’s most successful sides, Al-Ain and Al-Wasl, also locked horns.
1. Contrasting fortunes for Lima and Caio as Al-Ain cruise past Al-Wasl
Under the watchful eye of their former boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena, who was present in the stands at Zabeel Stadium, Brazilian-born UAE internationals Fabio Lima and Caio Canedo faced off as Al-Wasl went down 2-0 to Al-Ain.
Two years after the Argentine’s departure from Al-Wasl, the club looked a shadow of the side that finished second in 2016-17 and third the season after, when it also reached the President’s Cup final. Since then, the Cheetahs have finished ninth for two consecutive seasons.
On the night of his return to his old stomping ground, Caio’s curled effort into the top corner 12 minutes from time sealed the victory for Al-Ain, after Ivorian defender Kouame Autonne had put them in front just after the half-hour mark. The former Al-Wasl man refused to celebrate and was met with a roaring standing ovation from the home crowd, even as he sent them down to that dreaded ninth place.
While Lima remains a fan favorite and club captain at Al-Wasl, he must have been left wondering “what if” as his former strike partner headed back east to Al-Ain with the three points and top spot in the UAE Pro League secured.
2. Mendes masterclass consigns former boss Al-Anbari to the sack
Another man downing his former club this weekend was former Sharjah winger Ryan Mendes — and the consequences of his Al-Nasr side’s 3-0 triumph at Sharjah Stadium were dire for the man who had first brought Mendes to the UAE Pro League.
The Cape Verdean winger combined with Dia Saba to devastating effect as the Blues cruised to a 3-0 away victory. Mendes set up the opener in added time at the end of the first half and then rifled into the top corner with 20 minutes to go. His apologies to his former fan base would have meant little for Sharjah boss Abdulaziz Al-Anbari, who was axed in the aftermath of the defeat.
Four years after his appointment at the club he captained for the best part of a decade, Al-Anbari was dismissed with the club sitting fifth in the table, following a run of one win in their last seven games in all competitions, including elimination from the AFC Champions League round of 16 at the hands of Al-Wahda and the League Cup at the hands of Ittihad Kalba.
Al-Anbari, however, leaves with his head held high, having transformed a side that was languishing in the relegation zone when he took over halfway through the 2016-17 season. He led them to the league title in 2018-19 — their first championship since 1995-96, when Al-Anbari himself was a rising star in the club’s midfield — before adding the 2019 Super Cup and finishing fourth last term.
3. Turkish referee Cakir on the spot as Shabab Al-Ahli down Al-Jazira
In what was a heated top-four clash between reigning champions Al-Jazira and their hosts Shabab Al-Ahli, all eyes were on a new import to the league. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir became the first foreigner to officiate a UAE Pro League match since the UAE Football Association announced a controversial change to the rule that required all domestic competitions to be officiated by Emirati referees.
The 2015 UEFA Champions League final referee made a strong case for foreign referees on his debut as Shabab Al-Ahli beat Al-Jazira 2-1 in Dubai.
Abdullah Ramadan found the net at Rashid Stadium for the second season running after a sublime through pass from poacher-turned-creator Ali Mabkhout.
Having been denied an opener due to an offside decision — the first major call by Cakir and his team of officials — Brazilian youngster Yuri Cesar brought Shabab Al-Ahli level before the break, driving in at the far post after an Azizjon Ganiev corner.
The pick of the goals arrived after 72 minutes, with Iranian international Ahmad Nourollahi settling the game with a fine strike into the top corner after a solo run from midfield, ensuring his side overtook Al-Jazira in second place.
4. Four-star Al-Wahda send pointless Emirates Club closer to unwanted record
Fresh off their AFC Champions League quarter-final elimination at the hands of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr, Al-Wahda put on an emphatic attacking display to thrash newly promoted Emirates Club 4-1 at Al-Nahyan Stadium — a win that could be seen from two contrasting angles.
Coach Henk ten Cate’s men extended their unbeaten run since the start of the league season to seven games, but they remain in mid-table. The reason? The victory on Saturday night was their first since beating the other promoted side, Al-Urooba, 4-0 on the opening weekend. Since then, Al-Wahda have drawn each of their five games, so questions remain as to whether the Abu Dhabi side can replicate their attacking displays against teams of higher quality.
Emirates may have already been down to 10 men when Al-Wahda’s Khalil Al-Hammadi canceled out Joseph Gnadou’s opener early in the second half, but Ten Cate will without a doubt be encouraged by the fact that all of his front four got on the scoresheet, with Joao Pedro heading in the second, Fabio Martins applying a composed finish to make it three and Omar Kharbin rounding off the scoring with a brilliant free-kick under the wall.
For the Ras Al-Khaimah-based side, a swift return to the First Division seems inevitable but, even worse, coach Tarik Sektioui’s men run the risk of becoming the worst performers in the competition’s history. Emirates Club are yet to collect a single point, a quarter of the way through the season. They will need at least nine points to better the unwanted record of Ajman Club, who went down in 2009-10 with just eight.
5. Centenarian Diop breaks Gyan’s record
Back where it all started a decade ago, 34-year-old Al-Dhafra forward Makhete Diop rolled back the years as he bagged a brace against Ajman to become the UAE Pro League’s all-time top foreign scorer with 101 goals, breaking the 100-goal record set by Ghanaian legend Asamoah Gyan in Al-Ain and Shabab Al-Ahli’s colors.
After arriving from Syrian side Al-Karamah in the summer of 2011, Diop established himself as Al-Dhafra’s finest scorer of all time, striking up a deadly partnership with current Al-Wahda forward Kharbin over five years.
The Senegalese striker then departed to Shabab Al-Ahli for two successful seasons, before short stints in China with Beijing Renhe and Saudi Arabia with Al-Shabab. Al-Dhafra came calling again in January and Diop was back doing what he does best: Scoring goals for fun in the league he knows so well. His latest two were classic well-taken finishes from inside the box to cement his legacy as one of the most-feared forwards in the history of the UAE Pro League.