ABU DHABI: Two thrilling derbies, late goals, and upsets marked match week six of the UAE Pro League as Al-Ain continued to lead the table with only four points separating them from Al-Nasr in sixth.
1. High-flying Ajman down inconsistent Sharjah
Back in 2009-10, Ajman entered the UAE Pro League history books for all the wrong reasons with a record that remains standing over a decade later, as they ended the season in bottom place with just eight points.
There have since been multiple highs and lows, but on Wednesday the Oranges celebrated a milestone moment after beating neighbors Sharjah 1-0 to move up to fourth place in the table with 11 points, already bettering that infamous record just six games into the 2021-22 season.
In their first season in the post-Ayman El-Ramadi era, the experienced Egyptian tactician, who was a fan favorite at the club, is fast-becoming a distant memory. Serbian coach Goran Tufegdzic, himself a veteran of the league having previously managed four different Emirati clubs, is stamping his mark on the club at this early stage of proceedings.
Ajman’s third win in six games came at the expense of a Sharjah side struggling for form and unable to replace the influence of Brazilian playmaker Bernard, the former Everton man serving a one-match suspension after being sent off in the previous game.
Fans of the 2018-19 champions are living a rollercoaster ride with calls for the sacking of club legend Abdulaziz Al-Anbari echoing after their AFC Champions League exit against Al-Wahda and league defeats against rivals Shabab Al-Ahli and Ajman.
Three wins on the trot to start the season and a famous comeback to beat reigning champions Al-Jazira saw Al-Anbari hailed as a homegrown genius. The final rule on his legacy might have to wait until the end of the current campaign, with Sharjah sitting third in the table, just two points off the top spot.
2. Abu Dhabi rivals remain unbeaten after thrilling derby
The pick of the midweek games came at the Garden City as home side Al-Ain kept their grasp on the summit of the league table with a 1-1 draw against archrivals Al-Wahda on Wednesday.
Al-Ain’s two imports from the Moroccan league, Sofiane Rahimi and Kodjo Laba, combined to hand the 13-time champions the lead midway through the second half. This time the Togolese marksman turned into creator, dribbling down the right and setting up Rahimi to slot home his second goal in the UAE Pro League.
The large crowd at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium had already started to celebrate derby delight when Ivorian defender Kouame Autonne brought down Al-Wahda’s Omar Khribin inside the box deep in added time, with the Syrian stepping up to convert the resulting penalty and rescue his side’s unbeaten record in the campaign.
Both Abu Dhabi sides remain without a loss in the league this season, but the difference could not be more vivid, with Al-Ain leading the table on 14 points, while Al-Wahda languish in eighth place after five consecutive draws, having only beaten newly promoted Al-Urooba on the opening weekend.
The run of results for Henk ten Cate’s men has prompted the club’s board to make a late move in the transfer market, recruiting flamboyant winger Fabio Martins from Portuguese side Braga, with the 28-year-old having impressed in the Saudi Pro League while on loan at Al-Shabab last term.
Martins made his debut in the derby shortly after arriving in the country and predictably looked in need of more time with his teammates to adapt to his new surroundings.
3. Tagliabue continues to prove he has still got it
In a season where controversy on and off the pitch has been a mainstay for Al-Nasr, veteran striker Sebastian Tagliabue has been a rare light at Al-Maktoum Stadium. The 36-year-old proved his worth again on Wednesday as Al-Nasr came from two goals down to rescue a point against Baniyas.
The Argentine-born UAE international’s fifth goal of the campaign was also his 168th in the UAE Pro League, moving to within seven goals of all-time, top-flight leading scorer Zuhair Bakheet’s record of 175, and staying six behind Pro League era top marksman Ali Mabkhout of Al-Jazira.
The 2-2 draw means Al-Nasr sit sixth in the table, four points off top and one point ahead of their archrivals Al-Wasl, while last season’s runners-up Baniyas failed to add to their solitary win this campaign, finding themselves in 10th place, just two points off the drop zone.
4. Al-Jazira bounce back in style
It might have only been a 1-0 victory against lowly Al-Urooba, but the game at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium never looked in doubt as Al-Jazira dominated from start to finish, missing several chances before Mabkhout won and converted a penalty 20 minutes from time.
Reeling from a 2-1 defeat against Sharjah the previous match week, coach Marcel Keizer’s men were back at their best, playing fluid attacking football and creating chances in abundance. Only a resilient defense by the away side and a lack of concentration by the hosts’ forwards at crucial moments prevented a thrashing in the capital.
Key for the Pride of Abu Dhabi is Mabkhout returning to his best scoring form. Penalty it may have been, but Tuesday’s winner was the striker’s third in as many games, having failed to find the back of the net in his first three league outings. The No. 7 is back, squashing all doubts, and back on track too is his side’s title defense as they go into the next match week just a point behind leaders Al-Ain.
5. Dubai Derby win highlights Al-Wasl’s newfound identity
The first of this week’s two UAE Pro League derbies took place in Dubai with Al-Wasl welcoming neighbors Shabab Al-Ahli to the Zabeel Stadium and walking away with a precious victory, their first since the opening-day win away at Baniyas.
Long reliant on their Brazilian-born trio of Fabio Lima, Caio Canedo, and Ronald Mendes and playing their best football under Argentine boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Al-Wasl were a team in transition for the past three seasons, Canedo and Mendes departing and a raft of new signings failing to impress, leaving the now naturalized Lima to carry the burden alongside homegrown talents Ali Saleh and Ali Salmin. But finally, things look to be changing in Bur Dubai.
Brazilian coach Odair Hellmann reinvented the team as a counter-attacking unit, with Uruguayan summer signing Michel Araujo playing a key role, his left-footed strike beating Majed Nasser to win the derby for Al-Wasl. And while they still sit seventh with nine points, momentum is building with a run of three games unbeaten. It remains to be seen whether this victory will represent a defining moment for the Cheetahs’ season or another false dawn.