DUBAI: Leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club’s grip on the ADNOC Pro League strengthened and holders Al-Ain’s surprisingly weakened, during a potentially pivotal matchweek 20.
Leonardo Jardim’s first-place side dispatched Khor Fakkan 3-1 on Friday night, with Syria forward Omar Khribin and Argentine winger Fede Cartabia again among the scorers. Results elsewhere saw a five-point advantage develop, with only six fixtures to fulfil.
Resurgent champions Al-Ain were expected to similarly see off relegation-haunted Al-Nasr. But Ivorian youngster Abdoulaye Toure’s rasping late effort brought the second-placed side’s seven-match, top-flight winning streak to a juddering halt with a 1-0 defeat at a shell-shocked Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Geronimo Poblete and Siaka Sidibe, meanwhile, were dismissed in third-placed Al-Wasl’s chaotic 1-1 draw with Al-Ittihad Kalba. Caretaker Arno Buitenweg guided fourth-placed Al-Wahda to a 3-1 debut victory at bottom-placed Al-Dhafra and Trabzonspor loanee Djaniny’s double helped fifth-placed Sharjah to a 3-0 triumph versus promoted Al-Bataeh.
Second-bottom Dibba Al-Fujairah boosted their slim hopes of survival with a 2-0 victory at Baniyas, while sixth-placed Ajman and seventh-placed Al-Jazira shared late goals in a 1-1 stalemate.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week — Matheus Pereira (Al-Wahda)
It is not just the hair color that makes Al-Hilal loanee Matheus Pereira stand out.
The peroxide Brazilian was a cut above when Al-Wahda, under unheralded Dutchman Buitenweg’s care for the first time, eased past Al-Dhafra.
Smart footwork provided an early assist for Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner Adrien Silva. A trademark free-kick followed less than 10-minutes later, with his Clarets account being opened in style.
It has been a disrupted campaign for Al-Wahda. Several managers have come and gone: So, too, multiple members of their playing squad.
But a seemingly content Pereira, after a dispiriting second season at Al-Hilal, has the raw ability to carry them forward. They await any slips from Shabab Al-Ahli.
Goal of the week — Abdoulaye Toure (Al-Nasr)
A rising starlet showcased limitless potential in Al-Nasr’s landmark victory.
This season had been an interminably dismal affair for the Blue Wave.
Enthusiasm generated by the summer additions of Thorsten Fink and Adel Taarabt swiftly drained away as the spectre of an unexpected relegation battle grew for the UAE’s oldest club.
Yet fast forward to late winter, and belated signs of progress can be seen under head coach Goran Tomic. None more so than his teenage substitute’s telling impact in the Garden City.
Toure’s fourth cameo appearance in the league featured a blistering run on the touchline, burning past highly rated compatriot Kouame Autonne in the process. An adroit back heel at pace, and tightly marked in the penalty box, played in veteran Cape Verde winger Ryan Mendes, whose thunderous shot would repel high into the air off UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa’s stung fingertips.
Exemplary technique then witnessed Toure, from just inside the area, watch the ball all the way onto his right boot, before sending a high-velocity volley into the bottom corner.
That is now three victories in five matches for Al-Nasr, who reach the heady heights of 10th and are virtually safe from the drop.
With the likes of Toure and UAE call-up Hussain Mahdi, their future can be much brighter.
Coach of the week – Leonardo Jardim (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)
A historic success moves within touching distance – and Shabab Al-Ahli appear to possess the perfect tactician to take them there.
Jardim’s troops ticked off a fourth-successive league win, and eighth without defeat, from a match week in which a number of challengers faltered.
The final stretch is where both pedigree and suitability tell. Jardim has demonstrated the lot since his summer hire.
AFC Champions League glory with Saudi Arabia heavyweights Al-Hilal has added gravitas. Belief in youth which fuelled Monaco’s charge to 2016-2017 Ligue 1 supremacy is apt for a Shabab Al-Ahli squad full of burgeoning talents.
Khor Fakkan were held at arm’s length this weekend. Their hosts at Rashid Stadium dominated possession (62 percent to 38 percent) and doubled the shot count 16 to eight.
Shabab Al-Ahli have lifted the President’s Cup, UAE Super Cup, and ADIB Cup since 2017’s merger. But it required a manager like Jardim to inspire them toward top-flight silverware.
Emerge intact from the box-office summit clash at Al-Ain when the international break ends and their coronation can, surely, be scheduled.
Mabkhout return provides mixed message at start of UAE’s important period
An iconic international career was meant to be finished.
Record 80-goal marksman Ali Mabkhout saw himself ignored for January’s 25th Arabian Gulf Cup because of “technical reasons” and a new era proclaimed.
An ignominious group-stage exit in Iraq, however, has caused the dial to be turned back in the striker’s direction, ahead of a key run of winter fixtures for Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s flailing UAE team.
This month’s training camp in Abu Dhabi, plus unglamorous friendlies versus Tajikistan and Thailand, appear mundane. Yet the under-pressure Argentine must demonstrate World Cup 2022’s near miss was no fluke, with the lengthy run to the 2026 edition beginning in November and delayed 2023 Asian Cup following.
Hope for the future can be found in the increasing influence of Shabab Al-Ahli wingers Yahya Al-Ghassani and Harib Abdalla. Khalid Al-Balochi is a mainstay in midfield for Al-Ain and the equally tireless Abdulla Hamad is essential for Al-Wahda.
Yet, someone is always needed to put the ball in the back of the net. There is, as Arruabarrena learned in stark circumstance, still no one better at it than Mabkhout.