DUBAI: Spoils were shared in contrasting meetings when the ADNOC Pro League’s top four all clashed, and fallen giants Al-Nasr recorded a vital victory in their shock fight against relegation.
Saturday’s helter-skelter matchweek 14 finale witnessed Al-Wahda and Al-Wasl play out a thrilling 3-3 draw, settled in the final throes by UAE veteran Sebastian Tagliabue’s penalty for the hosts.
A more mundane affair had played out in Friday’s goalless summit meeting between second-placed Sharjah and leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club.
At the opposite end of the table, Morocco playmaker Adel Taarabt headed home the only goal when third-bottom Al-Nasr beat second-bottom Al-Dhafra to open up a four-point buffer to safety.
Gaston Alvarez’s wonder strike earned a 2-1 triumph for the 10-men of Baniyas at a sodden Khor Fakkan; Ittihad Kalba — who had Abdulaziz Al-Hamhami dismissed — collapsed to a 2-2 draw versus promoted Al-Bataeh courtesy of two late spot-kicks; and Al-Jazira icon Ali Mabkhout converted from 12 yards as they edged bottom-placed Dibba Al-Fujairah 1-0.
Inconsistent holders Al-Ain exhibited the imperious form of old in their 5-1 dismantling of Ajman, fuelled by braces from Ukraine maestro Andriy Yarmolenko and unstoppable Togo striker Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the Week — Fabio De Lima (Al-Wasl)
A big performance, in a big match, from the peerless Fabio De Lima.
The UAE forward produced a pair of equalizers to make it 2-2 in Abu Dhabi. A scruffy first was indebted to a generous deflection off Al-Wahda goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Shamsi’s legs, but his athletic jump and precise header for the second spoke of innate ability.
He then teed up ex-Argentina youth international Tomas Chancalay moments later for his superb 83rd-minute effort from distance. This season’s fourth-placed dark horses believed they had gained an epic victory, only for Tagliabue’s penalty 10 minutes later to put paid to that thought.
However, it should not detract from another sublime display by one of the professional era’s defining players.
De Lima was an unknown Brazilian attacker, barely out of his teens, when he joined Al-Wasl on loan in July 2014.
He now stands as an established, 29-year-old UAE international, with 141 top-flight goals in 181 run-outs. Only Mabkhout (196), Tagliabue (176) and fellow Al-Wasl legend Fahd Khamees (175) have registered more.
Few predicted a title chase for Al-Wasl when 2022-23 began with a torrent of stellar signings, across the division. Yet, the Dubai club’s summer hire of ex-Saudi Arabia tactician Juan Antonio Pizzi looks the most astute.
De Lima is, unquestionably, the fulcrum during this unlikely pursuit of a first top-flight title in 16 years.
Goal of the Week — Gaston Suarez (Baniyas)
A reminder of enduring class, propelled from 30 yards.
Ninth-placed Baniyas’ innocuous season has owed much to perennial failings at center forward. Plus, surprising anonymity from their typically influential Argentines.
Nicolas Gimenez and Gaston Suarez helped fuel the 2020-21 campaign’s unforeseen near miss for the title, then were rare beacons of light in the dreary season which followed. They had both, though, been dragged back to the median this term.
It was not the case at Saqr bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi Stadium where Jimenez scored a penalty and Suarez struck from range.
With the rain bucketing down, Suarez took one touch to tee himself up 30 yards from goal and unleashed a firecracker which swerved into the top corner.
This was a vital intervention. Full-back Joao Victor was soon sent off and Angola striker Fabio Abreu netted to give the hosts hope.
Coach of the Week — Goran Tomic (Al-Nasr)
It was a case of “better late than never” for Al-Nasr’s Croatian supremo.
Tomic, finally, tasted top-flight victory at the fifth time of asking, in a contest from which the UAE’s oldest club could not countenance defeat.
Such a reversal would have sent them tumbling into the relegation places. Even a draw would have kept the gap at an increasingly uncomfortable one point to a Al-Dhafra side who appear inspired by the January additions of Bulgaria midfielder Georgi Milanov and bustling Brazilian center forward Tiago Leonco.
But a disciplined Al-Nasr appeared at a nervous Al-Maktoum Stadium. They restricted the visitors to zero shots on target and 43 percent possession, with this first league clean sheet of Tomic’s era gaining full reward after Taarabt’s fortuitous effort.
Ailing Ajman and Khor Fakkan are up next, before next mid February’s Bur Dubai Derby with Al-Wasl. Momentum must be turned into more points.
Are we belatedly beginning to see the real Yarmolenko?
It is not unfair to say the season has not turned out as expected for both champions Al-Ain and their marquee pre-season addition.
Global headlines were written when Yarmolenko reunited with compatriot Serhiy Rebrov in the Garden City. This closed the chapter — for now — on a European club career spent at Dynamo Kiev, Borussia Dortmund and West Ham United.
It also began a flood of incredible additions by UAE clubs.
The enigmatic Yarmolenko had, however, failed to convert reputation into consistent excellence during the first half of an often-troubled season. Disquiet was posted by venting fans online and rumors emerged of interest from Turkish Super Lig winners Trabzonspor.
But a sea change appears under way for 2023. It is one which could yet turn his procurement into a bountiful success.
His brace versus Ajman made it three strikes in two matches — one fewer than his total from the preceding 12 top-flight run-outs. That is now eight goals in two games from Al-Ain, who have emphatically snapped a draining three-match run of draws.
This round’s pair of stalemates at the top show there is no clear title favorite. Could an improved Yarmolenko inspire Al-Ain to strike from sixth, now just four points off the pace?