DUBAI: Elation abounded for Leonardo Jardim’s long-term leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club when they came from behind to wrap up their first ADNOC Pro League title in fittingly determined fashion.
And Lourency’s double put Al-Bataeh in pole position to edge a tense, final-day survival showdown during a memorable matchweek 25.
The table-topping merged outfit were indebted to second-half strikes from Uzbekistan midfielder Aziz Ganiev and emerging UAE winger Yahya Al-Ghassani to secure a 2-1 victory at Baniyas.
Their superior head-to-head record against now-dethroned champions Al-Ain, who beat Al-Wasl 3-2, and Al-Wahda, who downed 10-man Ajman 3-2, rendered this week’s deciding round moot at the top.
Much is still at stake, however, in the battle to avoid following bottom-placed Al-Dhafra – who thrashed Al-Jazira 4-1 in a dead-rubber contest begun by veteran Sultan Al-Ghaferi’s 40-yard lob – into the First Division League.
Twelfth-placed Al-Bataeh ended their 14-match winless run in opportune style with a 2-0 victory against 10-man Al-Nasr, meaning they sit two-points ahead, with an equal head-to-head record and goal difference, of 13th-placed fellow promoted club Dibba Al-Fujairah who determinedly drew 1-1 at a Sharjah for whom ex-Barcelona striker Paco Alcacer netted.
Mid-table Al-Ittihad Kalba and Khor Fakkan played out a 1-1 stalemate.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the Week – Lourency (Al-Bataeh)
An apt time for club and leading scorer to terminate long droughts.
Al-Bataeh can head into a pressurized matchweek 26 with wind in their sails after this essential second-half dismantling of inconsistent giants Al-Nasr.
Lourency, as he has so often been in the 2022-2023 debut top-flight stint for a club only founded 11 years ago, was cast as savior, moving onto 12 league goals with a well-taken double.
The first was a delicate clip via Cameroon forward Anatole Abang’s imaginative pass, slotting his second following another cute assist from Malian defensive midfielder Sekou Gassama.
The ex-Goztepe forward had last netted in the Feb. 18 2-1 loss at Al-Wahda, seven matchweeks prior.
Critically, the Brazilian’s resurgence came under the care of lauded ex-Al-Ain and UAE goalkeeper Mutaz Abdulla – a 2002-2003 AFC Champions League winner – who had been drafted in to salvage Al-Bataeh’s rudderless campaign.
The curious patience afforded to long-term caretaker Said Chkhit may yet not prove terminal to the club’s ambitions of sticking in the ADNOC Pro League. Al-Bataeh had previously won under the Moroccan on Nov. 12.
Defining work, however, is still to be done.
Al-Bataeh hold a slender points advantage but must visit an Al-Ain reeling from concession of their top-flight trophy. Dibba host doomed Al-Dhafra, the only club below them in the rankings.
With the two relegation rivals sharing 1-0 away wins this term, head-to-head records are ruled out. Dibba must win, ideally handsomely, to pull off their great escape.
But Al-Bataeh have given themselves a strong shot at survival, thanks to the timely performance of their summer addition Lourency.
Goal of the Week – Sultan Al-Ghaferi (Al-Dhafra)
A blast from the past by Al-Ghaferi.
The 36-year-old defensive midfielder struck an unforgettable opener on Saturday against a former employer.
There appeared zero danger when goalkeeper Ali Khaseif – an ex-teammate at Al-Jazira and the UAE – threw out from a harmless 21st-minute free-kick. But seconds later Al-Ghaferi intercepted a wayward pass and hammered the ball back 40 yards, over the scrambling shot-stopper’s head.
The venomous effort was reminiscent of Clarence Seedorf’s iconic, rasping drive for Real Madrid against Atletico, rather than David Beckham’s career-making chip for Manchester United at Wimbledon.
Al-Ghaferi has featured sporadically throughout Al-Dhafra’s demotion, who are ending 11 years in the ADNOC Pro League. He played only once for Al-Jazira during a miserable 2019-2020 season.
Coach of the Week – Leonardo Jardim (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)
Andriy Yarmolenko, Miralem Pjanic, Jason Denayer, Alcacer, Allan and several other stars claimed global headlines when ADNOC Pro League sides went on an unprecedented – and star-studded – summer shopping spree.
The name, however, who would go on to define 2022-2023 went under the radar, despite a glittering CV.
Jardim proved a fitting choice when Shabab Al-Ahli tried to turn repeat cup success into top-flight glory, for the first time since 2017’s revolutionary amalgamation. It would also be a fitting goal scorer who sealed their supremacy.
Al-Ghassani earned a legendary victory at Baniyas, turning on the afterburners before effortlessly sweeping in a one-on-one.
Numerous coaches at Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Wahda, bar Henk ten Cate, had all failed to turn the winger’s rich promise into tangible results. That is where Jardim’s patient prior work at Monaco, Sporting Lisbon, and others came to the fore.
The Portuguese has also transformed the likes of Ganiev, Igor Jesus, Yuri Cesar, Harib Abdalla, and Ahmed Jamil into ruthless winners.
The foundations are in place for a bountiful era.
Goal difference, or head-to-head?
A technical matter, but one with real-life impact.
The ADNOC Pro League’s decision to maintain head-to-head record as the first tiebreaker instead of goal difference ensured that every match counts.
It has, though, denied this stunning season an apt end.
If goal difference was in place, second-placed Al-Ain’s vastly superior +33 would mean they would head into the matchweek 26 finale knowing defeat for Shabab Al-Ahli and victory for them would result in a record-extending 15th top-flight title. Now, the title race is wrapped up even with a three-point gap from first to third-placed Al-Wahda.
The ADNOC Pro League is not alone in its stance. Spain’s LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A, and Saudi Arabia’s Roshn Saudi League have applied the same method.
But would it be worth copying England’s Premier League, France’s Ligue 1, or Germany’s Bundesliga? It is a complex issue, worthy of study.