Al-Jazira icon Ali Mabkhout exhibited his enduring class and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club took another stride toward a maiden top-flight title in ADNOC Pro League’s matchweek 22.
Hat-trick hero Mabkhout netted goals in the 94th and 101st minute when the Pride of Abu Dhabi edged a rollercoaster, game-of-the-season contender 4-3 against Al-Nasr.
It was a more sedate affair, meanwhile, for leaders Shabab Al-Ahli as they breezed past promoted Al-Bataeh 3-0 and sustained a five-point lead, with four fixtures left.
Champions Al-Ain returned to winning ways courtesy of a 3-0 victory at Khor Fakkan during which Brazilian left-back Erik shone. But Morocco striker Walid Azaro’s brace for Ajman effectively helped end sixth-placed Al-Wasl’s trophy dream with a 4-2 defeat.
Fourth-placed Sharjah — who visit Al-Ain next week — maintained distant hopes thanks to a 1-0 triumph versus a bottom-placed Al-Dhafra who are on the precipice of relegation, following a decade-long top-flight stint.
Third-placed Al-Wahda required a 98th-minute leveller from Tunisian center-back Alaeddine Zouhir to draw 1-1 at relegation threatened Dibba Al-Fujairah.
Second-half efforts by Igor Rossi and Filip Kiss witnessed Ittihad Kalba edge Baniyas 2-1 in a mid-table battle.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week — Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)
Even one of Asia’s longest and most-storied careers has seen few nights like this.
Al-Jazira versus Al-Nasr was utterly breathless, a sporting drama undulating from the deepest pits to the greatest joys.
Jazira were two goals up before the hour mark, drawing soon after it, behind by 87 minutes and — decisively — back in front past the 100-minute mark.
Mabkhout remained a constant, amid the chaos. The 32-year-old was unflappable, salvaging victory at the death for a club he debuted with back in 2008.
His pair of penalties moved him onto 12 conversions in the top flight this term; double the tally of nearest challenger, Shabab Al-Ahli’s Fede Cartabia.
Add in a composed half volley to level at 3-3 and he now sits just one strike behind Al-Ain’s 23-goal leading marksman, Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba.
Mabkhout’s trio further represented a sixth multiple-goal haul of this league campaign.
It also pushed him onto a record-extending 203 top-flight efforts in the UAE. This is 25 more than Al-Wahda veteran Sebastian Tagliabue and 28 more than lionized World Cup 1990 attacker Fahad Khamees.
Question marks exist about the continued presence at international level of the UAE national team’s 80-goal record scorer. But there can be no doubt at all about Mabkhout’s extant value to fifth-placed Jazira.
Goal of the week — Erik (Al-Ain)
Erik just keeps getting better and better.
The highly rated teenage recruit from Brazilian giants Internacional has developed into an accomplished 22-year-old left-back at Al-Ain. His ascension has continued unbounded, despite a campaign of contrasts for the defending champions.
Another high-water mark was reached at Khor Fakkan.
An opening goal of startling quality and ferocious power was produced from his rarefied left boot.
There appeared little danger when a loose corner bounced across the penalty area. But the on-rushing Erik was alert to the possibilities.
A burst of acceleration and emphatic connection whizzed the ball inside goalkeeper Ahmed Al Hosani’s near post in a flash.
The defender’s superb night was extended just past the hour mark when a sharp one-two with UAE midfielder Khalid Al-Balochi concluded with an inviting low cross for Laba to tap-in.
Al-Ain remain, just about, within touching distance of Shabab Al-Ahli. Their title defense’s viability with four fixtures to fulfil owes much to their burgeoning full-back’s brilliance.
Coach of the week — Goran Tufegdzic (Ajman)
Another astonishing result for Goran Tufegdzic’s growing collection at Ajman.
The Orange Brigade extinguished Al-Wasl’s title hopes in brutal fashion. A 4-0 lead was earned by 51 minutes, in a devastating exhibition of attacking football.
A predatory brace by Morocco center forward Walid Azaro moved him onto double figures in the league this term. Tunisia magician Firas Ben Larbi’s smart finish at a tight angle detailed no lasting psychological turmoil from matchweek 21’s pair of missed penalties at Al-Bataeh, while Bahrain flyer Ali Madan embraced new responsibility with his successful spot-kick conversion.
Responses by Al-Wasl’s ex-Argentina youth international Tomas Chancalay and the irrepressible Fabio De Lima could not derail seventh-placed Ajman from a victory that moved them to within two points of the vanquished.
The same margin also stands to Jazira in fifth. A campaign of historic achievement is within reach for a club who have never finished higher than seventh during the professional era.
Mabkhout’s magic magnifies succession problems
Retaining a sense of perspective is key, in the midst of euphoria following Mabkhout’s magnificent haul.
The issue of succession for the UAE’s landmark goal getter does not appear any closer to being answered. This is an especially pertinent issue in a year from which qualifying for World Cup 2026 will begin and there is the delayed 2023 Asian Cup to tackle.
Fellow Emirati scorers from a round that featured 25 goals were club-mate Abdullah Ramadan, a center midfielder of significant ability, and journeyman striker Salem Saleh for Sharjah. Then there was the de rigueur strike from Wasl’s naturalized De Lima.
None of the youthful strikers called up for last month’s draw with Tajikistan and victory against Thailand netted. Mabkhout has six-more league goals than De Lima’s 16, then there is a chasm to Ittihad Kalba’s uncapped Ahmed Al-Naqbi on eight.
Saudi Arabia have 22-year-old striker Firas Al-Buraikan enjoying a career-best, Roshn Saudi League-campaign. Akram Afif and Almoez Ali stay potent in QNB Stars League.
Mystery about what follows Mabkhout for the UAE remains no closer to being solved.