Holders Al-Ain and leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club emerged strongest from an ADNOC Pro League matchweek 19 dominated by intra-top-six clashes.
Leonardo Jardim’s Shabab Al-Ahli, inspired by 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin, fought back from two-goals down to prevail 3-2 at crestfallen Al-Jazira. An 84th-minute penalty by Argentine wide man Fede Cartabia settled an undulating contest at sixth-placed opponents, from which both finished with 10 men.
It was a simpler affair for Al-Ain, easing to a comfortable 3-0 triumph versus 10-man Abu Dhabi rivals Al-Wahda, which featured a 40-yard, possibly fortuitous, strike from Croatia center-back Tin Jedvaj. Third-placed Al-Wasl, meanwhile, kept up with the leading pace when Fabio De Lima’s magical 92nd-minute back heel canceled out Cape Verde forward Djaniny’s ruthless low finish for fifth-placed Sharjah.
Portuguese midfielder Toze’s late penalty granted third-bottom Al-Nasr a valuable 1-0 triumph versus Baniyas, which moved them nine points away from danger.
Promoted Al-Bataeh and second-bottom Al-Dhafra shared two goals and two red cards, while entertaining 2-2 draws were played out in Khor Fakkan versus Ajman and Al-Bataeh against Al-Dhafra.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week — Omar Khrbin (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)
A game-of-the-season contender played out at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, with spiky Syria forward Khrbin crucial to the pacesetters’ rousing second-half retort.
This resolve signposted the Dubai outfit’s determination to claim a first league title since the landmark merger in 2017. Added edge was also provided by the comeback’s central character being on loan from Jazira’s neighbors Wahda, a rivalry stoked by separation of just 3 km.
Khrbin’s summer acquisition was overshadowed by the capture of coveted Lyon and Belgium center-back Jason Denayer. He has often since taken a backseat to the decisive Cartabia, who slotted in the deciding spot-kick.
But Khrbin’s work in the capital this weekend merited wide acclaim.
His competitive edge, when appropriately channelled, was engaged after an opening stanza from which UAE legend Ali Mabkhout converted a penalty — a remarkable 10th in the league this term — and prodigious Ivorian youngster Mamadou Coulibaly struck from distance.
Shabab Al-Ahli were a team renewed in the second half. Khrbin pounced at the back stick for a sixth top-flight strike in 15 run-outs at temporary employers, with Jardim’s pointed half-time words still ringing in their ears.
An unselfish fourth league assist then followed for emerging UAE winger Yahya Al-Ghassani — also a Wahda alumnus — to delicately loft over advancing compatriot Ali Khaseif.
Firm foundations had been set, ahead of Cartabia’s clincher. They could not even be unsettled by red cards for either side, deep into second-half injury time.
A summit clash with Al-Ain on April 1 looms large.
Goal of the week — Fabio De Lima (Al-Wasl)
Al-Wasl, however, hold firm belief they can play a significant role in this season’s title destiny.
This attitude was tested by Trabzonspor loanee Djaniny’s unerring 67th-minute finish at a packed Zabeel Stadium. But a modern great for one of UAE football’s defining clubs, once more produced at this critical juncture.
De Lima’s 14th goal of the campaign, and 143rd in 186 league appearances since his unheralded arrival from Brazil’s second-tier Atletico Goianiense in 2014, was typically accomplished.
Former Argentina youth international Tomas Chancalay’s fierce center was fizzed slightly behind him and into a packed penalty box.
The back heel that followed could have been conjured by few — and converted by even fewer. It also showed laudable clarity of thought by the naturalized UAE international amid a tinder-box atmosphere, defined by unbearable tension.
Star-studded Sharjah were bereft. But their relieved hosts erupted in celebration, from the technical area to the terraces, when an undefeated streak stretched into an eighth-successive match.
It is 16 years since Al-Wasl lifted a seventh league crown. An eighth has rarely felt this close.
Coach of the week — Serhiy Rebrov (Al-Ain)
Momentum is the magic word for Al-Ain.
They had none in a fraught period either side of the 2022 World Cup. But Ukraine icon, and serial trophy hoarder, Serhiy Rebrov, has generated plenty in the following period.
The 48-year-old’s pedigree is the driving force behind a seven-match winning top-flight run. His side, again, portrayed no sign of slowing down during a dominant display at Wahda.
Jedvaj, 21-goal Togo striker Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba and revitalized UAE forward Caio Canedo sealed victory aided by Abdullah Al Karbi’s 56th-minute dismissal.
Youth was key to this success. El Mehdi El Moubarik and 2022 Golden Boy nominee Matias Palacios were excellent in midfield, performing increasingly influential roles as this season progresses.
A dogged approach was imbued by their manager. Al-Ain won the foul count 13-6 and attempts count 13-9, despite boasting marginally inferior possession.
From a winter of discontent, Al-Ain may yet claim a record-extending 15th league crown, eighth President’s Cup and AFC Champions League return. All thanks to Rebrov’s unflappable leadership.
True title contenders emerge ahead of epic finale
The final sprint is in sight.
From a weekend that began with six contenders facing off against each other, several appear to have fallen by the wayside.
Another collapse from sixth-placed Jazira surely has put paid to hopes of repeating the 2021-21 triumph, as they sit nine points back with seven to play.
Sharjah’s star power looks diminished in fifth, seven points in arrears. Even fourth-placed Wahda will rue a five-point deficit and major test failed.
Third-placed Al-Wasl, in contrast, are determined and second-placed Al-Ain ascendant. They are both within one win of Shabab Al-Ahli — with meetings against the leader to come next month.
A season that promised so much in the summer is delivering in abundance.