UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season

Special UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season
Gabrielzinho, center, was Al-Wasl’s two-goal hero in the derby win over Al-Nassr. (Twitter/@AlWaslSC)
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Updated 03 October 2022

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season
  • Gabrielzinho Al-Wasl’s hero after two goals secure derby win over Al-Nassr
  • Last season’s runners-up Sharjah sustained the now sole 100 percent start with a 3-0 win at Khor Fakkan

Sharjah’s superstars showcased their collective might, Belgium center back Jason Denayer endured a chastening Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club debut and an electrified Al-Wasl exhibited flashes of brilliance in a fevered Bur Dubai derby when the ADNOC Pro League returned at the weekend.

A lively restart after the international break was headlined by a double strike from Al-Wasl’s Gabrielzinho in a raucous 2-1 win at Al-Nasr’s packed out Al-Maktoum Stadium. Former Barcelona ace Miralem Pjanic netted his second goal in UAE football and Greece center back Kostas Manolas didn’t put a foot wrong during his first appearance as last season’s runners-up Sharjah sustained the now sole 100 percent start with a 3-0 win at Khor Fakkan.

There was less joy for second-half substitute Denayer who witnessed new employers Shabab Al-Ahli go down 3-2 at expected strugglers Al-Dhafra.

Champions Al-Ain rebounded in a 3-0 beating of dark horses Ittihad Kalba, while Carlos Carvalhal ignored the noise surrounding him at Al-Wahda with an emphatic 4-0 victory at upstarts Al-Bataeh, although this result couldn’t prevent him becoming the campaign’s first managerial casualty.

Ex-Serbia youth international Sasa Ivkovic’s 94th-minute goal, meanwhile, saw Al-Jazira drop points for the first time with a 1-1 draw at Baniyas, and Morocco hit man Walid Azaro’s brace helped Ajman to a 3-1 win — their first of the campaign — against promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the matchweek four action:

Player of the week: Gabrielzinho (Al-Wasl)

It was supposed to be the weekend when star power dominated. It was, though, a less-heralded addition from the division’s extensive summer trolley dash who shone brightest.

Gabrielzinho arrived to little fanfare at Zabeel Stadium from promoted Portuguese outfit Rio Ave in July. But the 26-year-old winger guaranteed himself Wasl supporters’ eternal affections with a decisive — and defining — brace in Saturday’s derby.

Each goal saw the ball move from the Wasl penalty box to their opponents’ at lightning speed. Each involved a youthful trident of emerging UAE golden child Ali Saleh, increasingly influential Argentina youth international Tomas Chancalay — unburdened about an eligibility row when on the pitch — and the Brazilian free agent.

The latter pair directly contributed to both goals. Chancalay’s ability to dribble and retain clear vision at high velocity was rewarded with both assists for Gabrielzinho — one finish into the roof, the other into the bottom left.

Al-Wasl had only 29 percent possession and lost the attempts count 16-9 on a night in which ex-AC Milan, Benfica and Morocco midfielder Adel Taarabt debuted for the opposing Blue Wave.

But expressive head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s blueprint was all over this. Center backs Aleksandar Vasiljevic and Soufiane Bouftini defended stoutly, allowing a vibrant attack — led by Gabrielzinho — space to plunder.

Goal of the week: Mohamed Rayhi (Al-Dhafra)

Remarkable goals and remarkable results adorned this round.

Toze’s unstoppable free kick was immaterial for Nasr, Azaro’s whipped second secured Ajman three points and Caio’s thunderbolt showed it’s not just the massive names who’ll stylishly deliver for Sharjah.

The best of all, however, came in the Western Region.

Mohamed Rayhi sparked bedlam amid Dhafra’s technical team as his measured, curled effort from 30 yards near the hour mark put the unfancied hosts 3-0 up against celebrated Shabab Al-Ahli.

This moment typified the defiance, ingenuity and skill required to prevail in such a mismatch.

It provided enough of a buffer to eventually win 3-2 and an injection of belief to hang on for this memorable first three-point haul of the season.

Coach of the week: Carlos Carvalhal (Al-Wahda)

Managers rarely field questions about their futures in the aftermath of a 4-0 victory.

This was, however, the case on Sunday for Carvalhal.

Disquiet and rancour after a winless beginning stained the build-up to a seemingly tricky trip to Bataeh. These issues were pushed to one side, for 90 minutes at least, in an uplifting performance on the east coast.

Portuguese sports daily O Jogo then reported after the final whistle about an impending exit for Carvalhal and return of Spain’s Manolo Jimenez. The former’s departure was then made official on Monday night, with the latter’s rehiring – he led them to fifth in 2019-20 eason – expected to imminently follow.

Carvalhal’s swansong saw ex-Everton and Napoli defensive midfielder Allan adding bite upon his opening start, with former Benfica skipper Pizzi buzzing around with seven key passes. 

Veteran striker Sebastian Tagliabue’s first goal back at the Al Nahyan Stadium-outfit – a 153rd in the top flight for them - supplied further gloss, in a fixture dominated by set-pieces.

Carvalhal - a coveted former Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas, Swansea City and Braga tactician – was just four months into a lucrative one-season deal. He swiftly leaves with barely an imprint made.

Local talent isn’t being crowded out

It would be curious to consult UAE head coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena about this unprecedented transfer window.

The former Boca Juniors, Villarreal and Argentina full back is patently aware of top-level demands. But there must be a degree of nervousness about opportunities afforded to potential Whites stars, especially after a scoreless international period which contained 1-0 and 4-0 friendly reversals to Paraguay and Venezuela.

Yet, the 47-year-old should be encouraged by the sight of six UAE-eligible scorers in matchweek four.

Mabkhout maintained his one-goal lead in the scoring chart, Wahda center back Fares Juma struck from a set piece, 20-year-old forward Ahmed Fawzi marked his Jazira-to-Dhafra loan with a goal and Shabab Al-Ahli wide man Yahya Al-Ghassani tapped home in vain.

Naturalized attackers Tagliabue and Caio Canedo also got in on the action.

It was this season’s joint highest round tally for UAE-eligible players. A fact given greater value as it followed the previous fortnight’s accumulation of more renowned foreigners.

Emirati players are responding positively, it seems.