A revitalized Al-Jazira shook champions Al-Ain on an epic night, runners-up Sharjah clung on for victory at Ajman, and new boys Al-Bataeh rose to third during the ADNOC Pro League’s unforgettable matchweek 3.
An electrified Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium was the venue for Thursday’s opening heavyweight clash of the campaign — and it did not disappoint.
Al-Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout added to his icon status by sealing a 2-1 win for the Pride of Abu Dhabi in a contest that also featured Al-Ain right-back Bandar Al-Ahbabi’s dismissal. Spain striker Paco Alcacer’s pinpoint header earlier on the same evening sealed a nervy 3-2 triumph for the 10-man Sharjah, which twice trailed to unfortunate Ajman.
Lourency’s second goal in three games saw Bataeh, which handed a bow to 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil, prevail 1-0 over Baniyas; Syria attacker Omar Khrbin heaped pressure on underperforming former employers Al-Wahda with the opener in 10-man Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club’s 2-1 success; and a late double from Ittihad Kalba condemned bottom-placed Al-Dhafra to a 2-0 defeat. Promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah drew 1-1 at Al-Wasl, while Khor Fakkan and Al-Nasr played out the season’s first goalless stalemate.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action:
Player of the week: Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)
Mabkhout is heralded as club royalty at Jazira, and displays like this, on nights like this, show why.
UAE football’s leading marksman, both for the national team and in top-flight history, performed at a different level on what felt like a breakthrough occasion. An estimated 20,000-strong crowd created a volcanic atmosphere, with each play greeted by tribal roars.
A clever assist and instinctive finish proved the difference from Mabkhout against the title-holders. Their top performers, Ukraine maestro Andriy Yarmolenko and Togo hitman Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, who netted the leveler, were unable to outshine him.
The first goal was crafted via a back-heel from Mabkhout after the ball was fizzed in by Romania recruit Florin Tanase. The on-rushing Abdulla Ramadan rocketed home a 20-yard thunderbolt, despite the attentions of Colombian center-back Danilo Arboleda and Al-Ahbabi.
Mabkhout’s predatory instincts after the interval ensured he was positioned to profit from a defensive deflection inside the penalty box. True leadership also emerged in the frantic final stages as he cajoled his team-mates over the finish line.
That is now six strikes in three outings, with goal contributions coming at a punishing average of one every 38.6 minutes — a dramatic response to last term’s downturn of 10 efforts in 20 matches.
Importantly, it is also a perfect nine points from nine for Al-Jazira heading into the international break. The 2020-21 champions, and their legendary No. 7, are up for another title scrap.
Goal of the week: Brian Ramirez (Al-Ittihad Kalba)
Something special is brewing on the UAE east coast.
Kalba’s impressive recruitment, headlined by Galatasaray loanee Alexandru Cicaldau and Serie A stalwart Daniel Bessa, has been matched by a rebranding off the pitch. This confluence of purpose was exhibited in a remarkable second goal in a win over Dhafra that lifted to Kalba to fourth.
A total of 20 passes followed from under-21 goalkeeper Eisa Hooti’s sidewinding kick, with every player apart from left-back Abdulaziz Al Hamhami touching the ball. This perfectly calibrated play culminated with UAE veteran Habib Fardan’s artistic flick to Argentine forward Ramirez, who raced through a break in the defense to slot home.
Ambition to gatecrash the UAE game’s established order and compete in the AFC Champions League are fuel at Ittihad Kalba Stadium. Moments like this turbocharge such desire from a club determined to claim the first major silverware of their 50-year existence — and fast.
Coach of the week: Goran Tufegdzic (Ajman)
Attention on matchweek 3 gravitated toward events in the capital derby.
Ajman’s defiance amid defeat to Sharjah stands as a positive bellwether. Even with the renewed concentration of elite talent at the summit, ferocious competitors can be found in abundance elsewhere.
Head coach Tufegdzic led the Orange Brigade to a joint-best finish of seventh in the professional era during his debut 2021-22 campaign. Clear fighting spirit has been retained, judging by Thursday night’s showing.
The Serbian’s troops unsettled the star-studded visitors — with ex-Barcelona players Miralem Pjanic and Alcacer in the starting line-up — for long spells. They registered six shots on target from 13 attempts, twice took the lead, and boasted the game’s outstanding performer in Congo winger Prestige Mboungou, an adroit late-summer pick-up from Saudi Arabia’s Abha.
So rattled were the King that UAE center-back Salem Sultan was dismissed late on for an off-the-ball incident.
Ajman are yet to taste victory this season. On this evidence, they will soon be enjoying the feeling in weeks to come.
Reflections on a joyous start
These are exciting days for the ADNOC Pro League.
A rip-roaring start has seen consistently ballooned attendances, a startling rise in playing tempo and young Emiratis excelling amid a burgeoning environment.
This upturn reached an early culmination at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, with Al-Jazira and Al-Ain contesting a game that equalled those in the Roshn Saudi League and Qatar Stars League.
The competition has benefited immeasurably from the organizing body engaging fan associations and encouraging reach out to wider communities. Their investment to revamp English-language television coverage can only help.
Even more can be expected from an influx of formidable foreign playing additions as temperatures fall.
For too long in the latter half of the previous decade, crowds dispersed and UAE teams left an increasingly smaller footprint in the AFC Champions League.
The challenge now in a unique season disrupted by the 2022 World Cup is to maintain this momentum. An enlivening beginning cannot go to waste.