The opening round of the ADNOC Pro League saw Champions Al-Ain dramatically drop points at Ajman, while debutants Al-Bataeh shone as the 2022-23 season promised plenty of intrigue in the coming weeks and months.
Bahrain winger Ali Madan’s fortunate strike saw Ajman hold the Boss to a 1-1 draw in Friday’s opener, with last term’s 26-goal leading scorer Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba also failing to convert a penalty deep into second-half injury time moments after VAR ruled out a winner for the hosts.
There was contrasting emotion for promoted Bataeh — only founded in 2012 — who triumphed 2-0 against supposed dark horses Al-Ittihad Kalba, through Lourency and Joao Novais’ fine efforts.
Spain hit man Paco Alcacer sealed a 2-0 win for Sharjah at Leonardo Jardim’s Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club, Joao Pedro’s headed brace salvaged a late 2-2 draw for Al-Wahda amid the vibrant atmosphere at Al-Wasl and club legend Ali Mabkhout repeated the trick in Al-Jazira’s 2-0 triumph versus First Division League victors Dibba Al-Fujairah.
Saska Ivkovic got the only goal as 10-man Baniyas held on against Khor Fakkan and Al-Nasr pegged back Al-Dhafra in a 1-1 stalemate.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from matchweek one:
Player of the Week: Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)
A summer break has, seemingly, done iconic Al-Jazira striker Mabkhout the world of good.
The UAE football’s leading scorer for both club and country registered only 10 top-flight goals last season, his lowest return in eight years. But the striker already matched 20 percent of this tally within the opening 27 minutes at a carnival Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
Revitalized Mabkhout reveled in the company of electric new additions Florin Tanase and Achraf Bencharki, picking out the former’s delicate chipped ball to lash in the opener. He would then win, via Marcelo’s high boot, and convert the second from 12 yards.
The 31-year-old set the standard as Jazira played at a furious tempo both impressive for the late-summer heat, and last consistently witnessed during 2020/21’s title charge.
Club and player can take real confidence headed into this month’s grandstand clash with Al-Ain.
Goal of the Week: Gilberto (Al-Wasl)
A leveler rich in promise takes top honors in the opening week.
Gilberto has made a career — from the US to the UAE, via Turkey and Brazil — from converting tap-ins. Yet, the goals dried up in an inauspicious second half of 2021-22 with fresh employers.
The pace and precision of Al-Wasl’s first strike in the box-office draw with Al-Wahda has offered ample hope of what is to come.
Argentine battler Geronimo Poblete’s deep pass to fellow new boy Gabrielzinho broke the lines. An artful one-two with UAE golden boy Omar Abdulrahman raised Zabeel Stadium supporters from their seats, prior to a grateful Gilberto tapping into an open net for a fifth UAE Pro League goal in 15 run-outs.
Last term’s tactical straitjacket imposed by former coach Odair Hellmann has been torn off by expressive successor Juan Antonio Pizzi. It’s intriguing to see how Al-Wasl — and their previously muted center forward — progress from base camp.
Coach of the Week: Caio Zanardi (Al-Bataeh)
Zanardi assumed control during a moment of remarkable change at Bataeh.
More than a dozen transfers were concluded this summer by a ferociously ambitious club, determined to excel upon their top-flight bow.
Extensive experience in the technical staff at Al Nasr aided this extreme acclimatization. Similarly, an adherence to finely calibrated football previously on show at Khor Fakkan.
These tenets were on display at Ittihad Kalba Stadium versus hosts boasting Galatasaray loanee Alexandru Cicaldau in their XI.
Possession (67 percent/33 percent) was ceded and goalkeeper Zayed Ahmed was required to make the round’s most saves (six). But the two sides recorded identical expected goals of 1.5 in identical 3-5-2 formations, with the visitors — at a ground they’ll share for at least the season’s start — profiting via Lourency’s ruthlessly dispatched counter-attack and Novais’ rocket from the penalty box’s edge.
Further encouragement is provided by the fact this was achieved without 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil. Friday’s result won’t be a one-off if he can be inspired to reach previous peaks when adopted into the matchday squad.
Make the most of this momentum
These promise to become halcyon days in the ADNOC Pro League.
A pre-season defined by smart additions in the dugouts and eye-catching recruitment on the pitch was followed by the welcome sight of packed stands.
Champions Al-Ain colored half of Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Stadium purple and white. A raucous, sold-out Zabeel Stadium provided a fitting backdrop for an undulating contest of genuine quality between Wasl and Wahda, while Jazira’s commitment to community initiatives — including their Brazilian half-time show — drew a strong crowd to the recently upgraded Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
This turnout was made all-the-more encouraging by temperatures still pushing 30 degrees Celsius in the early evening kick-off slot.
There is a “product” to be embraced — and a bountiful promise to be fulfilled.
Spain predator Alcacer got off to a goal-scoring start for Sharjah, who retain major ambitions in the transfer window’s final month. Ukraine maestro Andriy Yarmolenko can only improve after his middling opening appearance for the holders. Jazira’s attacking trio looks guaranteed to thrill.
November’s World Cup poses a unique challenge to maintaining momentum. But the condensed fixture list ahead of November’s enforced break may, actually, boost this process.
A 14th season of professionalism could become the greatest, yet.