At a point of the season where, usually, the title race, Champions League qualification spots and relegation battles would start to take shape, the UAE Pro League remains wide open with teams moving up and down the table, and unpredictability reigning supreme.
Unbeaten rivals Al-Ain and Al-Wahda occupy the top two spots while bottom side Emirates Club continue their pursuit of a first point, and last year’s runners-up Bani Yas find themselves three points off the drop zone. With that, we look at five talking points from a thrilling matchweek 9 of the competition.
Solid Ittihad Kalba compound Shabab Al-Ahli problems
Shabab Al-Ahli travelled to the east coast hopeful that a win against Ittihad Kalba could lift them to second, within touching distance of leaders Al-Ain, but coach Mahdi Ali’s men had their work cut out.
Deprived of the services of injured striker Peniel Mlapa and key attacking outlets Ahmed Jashk and Waleed Anbar (both ineligible to face parent club Shabab Al-Ahli), Ittihad Kalba were left to rely on the brilliance of another loanee, Ousmane Camara, from Sharjah FC. The young Guinean wreaked havoc in the visitors’ defense, and came within inches of scoring, only to be denied by the upright.
At the other end, Shabab Al-Ahli were left frustrated by Jorge da Silva’s side’s solid defense — the fourth best in the league. So impressive has been their form this campaign that UAE coach Bert van Marwijk had to recall 36-year-old center-back Mohanad Salem two years after his last cap.
At the end there was nothing to separate the pair, and this latest setback for pre-season favorites Shabab Al-Ahli leaves the coach in an untenable position as his side slipped to fifth place with just one win in their last five matches.
Dubai Derby Delight for Al-Nasr
The pick of the midweek games saw Dubai arch-rivals Al-Wasl and Al-Nasr lock horns at the former’s Zabeel Stadium on Tuesday.
Al-Nasr dominated from start to finish against a lackluster Al-Wasl side and were rewarded with goals. Ryan Mendes was the star of the show, winning a penalty after 18 minutes when brought down inside the box by Nigerian defender Mutau Owolabi, allowing Portuguese playmaker Toze to convert from the spot.
The former Sharjah winger was again involved as he sent a pinpoint diagonal ball into the box for Sebastian Tagliabue to nod home as the blue half of Bur Dubai celebrated a two-goal lead.
Neither a penalty, wasted by William Pottker, nor a gifted tap-in for Michael Araujo to half the deficit, were enough to salvage anything for Al-Wasl, who find themselves languishing in ninth with only two wins in their last eight, while their city rivals soar into third place.
Sharjah struggles continue post Al-Anbari
Two sides that recently made managerial changes locked horns in a repeat of the AFC Champions League round of 16 clash, with both Sharjah and Al-Wahda still under the guidance of interim coaches, but the response on the pitch from the two could not be more different.
Sharjah had stumbled to a 2-2 draw against minnows Al-Orooba the previous week following the departure of club legend Abdulaziz Al-Anbari who had led them to the 2018-19 UAE Pro League title, but saw his side stagnate this term. Assistant coach Juan Carlos was installed while the search for a new permanent boss continues.
At Al-Wahda, a run of five winless matches in the league and a 5-1 thumping at the hands of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr in the AFC Champions League quarter-final consigned former boss Henk ten Cate to the sack, with French coach Gregory Dufrennes stepping up from the U23s to take charge.
Al-Wahda’s powerful front four ran riot against a Sharjah side that did not look to have found an answer to their continued struggles. Omar Kharbin headed the visitors into the lead and Joao Pedro drilled home the second at the hour mark before veteran Ismael Matar set up the flamboyant Fabio Martins to round off the scoring with an exquisite piece of team play.
The misery of the Ten Cate days was over as Al-Wahda climbed to second place in the table, just four points behind leaders Al-Ain, while the 3-0 defeat left Sharjah to reflect on whether their problems ran deeper than the departed boss.
No deadly duo, no problem for Al-Ain
A mini slump of form had seen Al-Ain win one of their last three games, but coach Sergei Rebrov’s side would argue that it was indeed their most difficult run of matches so far, having played Al-Wahda, Al-Wasl and Shabab Al-Ahli in three consecutive fixtures and walked away unbeaten with a total of five points collected.
On Tuesday they faced a different type of challenge. While a home game against 12th placed Al-Dhafra would not usually qualify as one that is impossible to win, Al-Ain would have to do it without the services of their main attacking threats, suspended Togolese striker Laba Kodjo and injured flying winger Bandar Al-Ahbabi.
They needed well over an hour, but the win was in no doubt as a dominant display at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium was capped off with a headed goal as North African duo Yacine Meriah and Sofiane Rahimi combined — the Tunisian defender crossing from the right for Moroccan Rahimi, who headed in the goal that was enough to get Al-Ain back to winning ways.
With a third of the season gone, the UAE’s most successful side are yet to be beaten and are looking good value for their five-point lead at the summit of the league.
High flying Ajman stun reigning champions Al-Jazira
Al-Jazira continue to blow hot and cold this season — their five-game form going into the matchweek 9 trip to Ajman read W-L-W-L-W — and a third defeat in six games ensued, matching their loss tally from the entirety of the title-winning 2020-21 season.
There were encouraging signs for coach Marcel Keizer’s side as striker Ali Mabkhout struck the post inside four minutes, but instead it was Gambian forward Bubacarr Trawally who found the back of the net first, the former Al-Shabab forward putting Ajman in the lead with a composed finish.
Al-Jazira were thrown a lifeline late in the first half as Mabkhout was fouled inside the box and stepped up to convert from the spot, equalizing for his side and matching Fahd Khamis 25-year-old record as the UAE top division’s all-time top scorer with 175 goals.
A turning point arrived just before the hour-mark as goalkeeper Ali Khaseif was given his marching orders following a rash challenge on Feras Belarbi, who was through on goal. Substitute goalkeeper Salam Khairi was left rooted to the spot as the Tunisian forward promptly curled the resulting free-kick into the back of the net to seal a famous victory for Ajman.
The result means just two points separate the sides at this stage, with Al-Jazira dropping to fourth and Ajman climbing up to seventh. In comparison, Ajman finished last campaign in 12th place, just outside the relegation zone, and a whopping 42 points adrift of champions Al-Jazira.