DUBAI: The ADNOC Pro League’s heavyweights cut loose in a high-scoring matchweek 15, while Al-Nasr’s worrying campaign continued.
A quartet from the top-five teams netted three times or more. Leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club led the way with a 5-1 demolition of bottom-placed Dibba Al-Fujairah, with 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin doubling up.
Caio’s pair fueled second-placed Sharjah in their ominous 4-0 defeat of Baniyas and ex-Argentina youth forward Tomas Chancalay carried the major threat with two goals when fourth-placed Al-Wasl downed promoted Al-Bataeh 3-1.
Ukraine maverick Andriy Yarmolenko won a penalty and finished a flowing team move as champions Al-Ain’s uptick in form continued with their 4-1 victory at sinking Al-Dhafra.
The round’s other substantial result resonated toward the foot of the table, third-from-bottom Nasr being picked apart 4-1 by dark horses Ajman in another sizeable loss for the UAE’s relegation-haunted, oldest club.
Third-placed Al-Wahda, meanwhile, kept up the pace with a 2-0 win at Ittihad Kalba, from which lethal striker Joao Pedro was intriguingly omitted from the starting XI.
Lastly, Zayed Al-Ameri’s 90th-minute header salvaged a 1-1 draw for laboring 2020-21 champions Al-Jazira at home to 10th-placed Khor Fakkan.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the Week — Caio (Sharjah)
The summer’s flurry of monster signings gained Sharjah global headlines.
Yet, their true star attraction was already in situ. Saturday’s portentous triumph in Abu Dhabi exemplified this.
Greece center-back Kostas Manolas gained a clean sheet, Bosnia & Herzegovina midfielder Miralem Pjanic teed up Makhete Diop’s headed opener and Spain striker Paco Alcacer got a pair of assists. Those two assists, however, were converted by outstanding eight-goal Brazilian forward Caio.
The 28-year-old has had brushes with the global stage. A Silver Ball-winning performance — to reward the second-best player — when Al-Ain were historic runners-up at the 2018 Club World Cup sparked a transfer to Portuguese giants Benfica.
This switch, however, did not work out and he was soon back on familiar ground. The ADNOC Pro League is fortunate to have him.
A deflected shot in the 52nd-minute at Baniyas Stadium trickled in to add comfort. The lead would then stretch to three in eye-catching fashion.
Alcacer’s telepathic back heel found the grateful Caio on the edge of the penalty box. A fierce, first-time finish arrowed into the bottom corner meant 10 top-flight goal contributions for the campaign.
Sharjah sit second, but have flattered to deceive too often.
An external solution is expected to be imminently confirmed with the loan arrival of Cape Verde forward Djaniny from reigning Turkish champions Trabzonspor. Resident attacker Caio can, though, catalyze Cosmin Olaroiu’s men in the remaining rounds.
Goal of the Week — Andriy Yarmolenko (Al-Ain)
Another matchweek, further encouraging performances from holders Al-Ain and Yarmolenko.
The 33-year-old’s figures have been strong throughout his time in the UAE. He has now accrued 11 goal contributions from 15 top-flight run outs.
Questions, however, were posed — not for the first time in an enigmatic career — about the consistency of this output.
Yarmolenko was a constant menace at Dhafra, winning a penalty late in the first half converted by 17-goal Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba. The best was to come soon after the break.
The ex-Dynamo Kiev star picked up the ball in a pocket of space on his favored right flank. A one-two with rampaging UAE midfielder Khalid Al-Balochi gained him central possession on the outskirts of the area.
A second one-two with Laba then put him clear inside a penalty box packed with dumbfounded Dhafra defenders. Yarmolenko’s sublime touch at speed and instant low drive came from the top drawer.
From four passes in 10 seconds, he’d turned a harmless situation out wide into one of this season’s great team goals.
This is the Yarmolenko dreamt of when Al-Ain pulled off their summer coup.
A third-successive league win, after a preceding three draws, signifies rapid improvement. So, too, a four-point gap to the leaders from fifth.
This upturn — for player and club — will be further stress-tested in Saturday’s grandstand “Al Clasico” against visiting Jazira.
Coach of the Week — Goran Tufegdzic (Ajman)
Ajman are back.
Chastening defeats to heavyweights Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Ain, to a combined score of 2-8, were forgotten when Nasr were disassembled.
Ajman ceded more possession (55 percent/45 percent) and attempts (18/12). Yet Tufegdzic knew he had the counterattacking weapons to pick holes in the visitors’ porous rearguard.
Congo winger Prestige Mboungou, a standout solo goal from Bahrain flyer Ali Medan and ingenious Tunisia schemer Firas Ben Larbi’s double followed.
Tufegdzic, clearly, never lost belief in his troops, despite a tricky start to 2023. This result vindicated his position.
How real are Nasr’s worst fears?
Relief generated by 12th-placed Nasr’s recent victory against Dhafra soon evaporated.
Now the question is how far can they sink?
Goran Tomic — their seventh permanent head coach hired since January 2018 — is under significant pressure, just six top-flight fixtures into his reign. Marquee winter addition Peniel Mlapa is scoreless in three league matches, a continuation of his decline witnessed at Kalba.
They have the second-worst attack (14 goals scored) and fourth-worst defense (29 goals conceded). That’s relegation form.
A four-point gap to Dhafra in the drop zone is uncomfortable, with 11 matches to go. The Western Knights have also shown flickers of life through Bulgaria midfielder Georgi Milanov and bulldozing Brazilian journeyman striker Tiago Leonco.
Last season across the border in Saudi Arabia, it was thought Al-Ahli were too big to go down. Their demise shows that Nasr’s worst fears could yet come true.