DUBAI: Relegation heartbreak befell Dibba Al-Fujairah and champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club finished with victory as an engrossing 2022-23 ADNOC Pro League wrapped up with matchweek 26.
Dibba, starting the day in 13th, and fellow promoted outfit Al-Bataeh, entered the final round in the knowledge one would be safe and the other would return to First Division League. It would be 12th-placed Al-Bataeh who clung on to their top-flight status when a 5-2 defeat at dethroned champions Al-Ain – in which Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba’s double ensured he finished as top scorer with 28 — went unpunished, as Dibba, needing a win, could only draw 1-1 against bottom-placed Al-Dhafra.
Brazilian prospect Igor Jesus, meanwhile, slotted home the only goal as title-winning Shabab Al-Ahli defeated 10-man Ajman, whose sixth-placed finish represented their best of the professional era. Third-placed Al-Wahda drew 1-1 with Baniyas, and fourth-placed Al-Wasl thrashed Khor Fakkan 5-1.
Legendary striker Ali Mabkhout grabbed a goal and an assist as fifth-placed Al-Jazira downed Ittihad Kalba 2-0 in what was likely coach Marcel Keizer’s final outing. Mercurial Morocco midfielder Adel Taarabt struck as Al-Nasr edged seventh-placed Sharjah 1-0.
Here are Arab News’ top picks, and a talking point from the season finale.
Player of the Week – Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)
Strikers are cast as ruthless protagonists, zoning in on finding the back of the net and zoning out from their team-mates when poised to strike.
This is, undoubtedly, a facet of Ali Mabkhout’s character. You do not become the UAE’s record scorer on 81 strikes, net 27 times in 2022-23 and a benchmark 208 times in the UAE top flight without knowing when to put the blinkers on.
The 32-year-old is, however, not made like all strikers. His supreme all-round game and laudable sporting spirit was exemplified in a commendable moment when the correct choice was made, but one which ultimately denied him this term’s Golden Boot.
“(We) created so many chances,” said enamoured Al-Jazira boss Keizer. “The last phase was not the best, but luckily we have Ali Mabkhout.
“Ali scores the penalty and then you also see what a good sportsman Ali is.
“He could have gone for his second goal, for the top scorer of the league, but he took the right decision to pass it to (Ahmed) Al-Attas.”
Mabkhout entered matchweek 26 in a shootout with Al-Ain’s prolific Laba to be the division’s leading marksman. A spot-kick put him — and Al-Jazira on the night — in the lead.
Little else followed until second-half injury time. Mabkhout would latch onto a ball over the top and charge into the penalty area.
This was a presentable one-on-one opportunity dispatched numerous times throughout a garlanded career. Yet a pass was unselfishly rolled across to unmarked team-mate Al-Attas — recording his first minutes of the season after a serious knee injury — to net.
A special call from a special player. Al-Jazira must continue to cherish this icon, for club and country.
Goal of the Week — Jaja Silva (Dibba Al-Fujairah)
It seemed unfair such a sublime goal could be rendered utterly futile.
This was the case for Dibba’s Jaja Silva. Again, the Brazilian winger stood out as a beacon of quality when relegation was sealed in shattering circumstances.
Dibba made it eight games without defeat down the stretch with their draw against already doomed Al-Dhafra. Silva earned this hollow point when he chested down a hopeful punt towards the penalty area, spun into position and — within a heartbeat — sent his searing half volley arrowing away into the top corner when off-balance.
There would be 50 minutes game-time left from this point. But a Dibba side who finished the division’s lowest scorers could, characteristically, not build on this leveller and strike again to secure safety, with Al-Bataeh losing heavily at Al-Ain.
This might not be the last we see of Silva in the top flight. A return of three goals and one assist from 19 run-outs may pique the interest of parent club Al-Nasr, who underwhelmed so unquestionably throughout 2022/23.
Coach of the Week — Serhiy Rebrov (Al-Ain)
If this was Al-Ain and Rebrov’s final ADNOC Pro League fixture, it was a fitting one.
It is widely expected the 48-year-old will assume Ukraine’s head-coach role when his deal in the Garden City expires at the end of next month. A tweet from the Ukrainian Association of Football confirmed as much in late February.
There appeared little to play for on Friday, with their league crown already ceded to Shabab Al-Ahli in matchweek 25. This is not, however, how Rebrov operates.
A carnival of attacking football followed, helping Laba to attain top scorer in both of Rebrov’s campaigns, and countryman Andriy Yarmolenko to finish with a brace.
Al-Ain netted 14 more goals than anyone else in an oscillating 2022/23 and six more than in all-conquering 2021/22.
Rebrov will be much missed, when the inevitable occurs.
Summing up a season
There can be few doubts about the quantum leaps taken by ADNOC Pro League throughout the season.
A phalanx of star recruits in the summer inspired a notable rise in playing standards, increased media attention and, most importantly, booming fan attendance.
The likes of Miralem Pjanic, Yarmolenko and Jason Denayer did not play in a vacuum, like stellar buys have done during previous campaigns. Intriguingly as well, these headline-grabbing additions did not have it all their own way.
It was Leonardo Jardim’s faith in attacking youth and trust in veteran defenders at Shabab Al-Ahli which defined the season.
It is now up to the league at large to ensure hard-earned momentum is not squandered. There remains plenty to achieve in 2023/24.