Abu Dhabi: Emirates Club superstar Andres Iniesta was denied victory in an enthralling contest against Ajman, Al-Wahda reigned supreme in the capital, and Al-Wasl inflicted defeat on inconsistent Sharjah in an engrossing ADNOC Pro League matchweek two.
Friday night’s roaring start witnessed the ex-Spain and Barcelona legend slot home a 94th-minute penalty to put promoted Emirates 4-3 ahead amid fevered scenes after being 3-1 down at half-time, only for nerveless Bahrain winger Ali Madan to spoil the party with a 105th-minute spot-kick of his own to secure Ajman’s 4-4 draw.
The Abu Dhabi Derby spoils, meanwhile, were earned by Pitso Mosimane’s measured Al-Wahda, courtesy of Brazil defensive midfielder Fernando’s own goal in a 2-1 victory at neighbours Al-Jazira.
Sunday’s denouement featured a 3-1 triumph for Al-Wasl at star-studded Sharjah, which saw a composed opening goal in yellow for Switzerland center forward Haris Seferovic, and returning star Caio Canedo’s first effort for the club since May 2019.
Elsewhere among probable title contenders, last season’s 28-goal leading marksman Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba opened his 2023 to 2024 account with a poacher’s double as Al-Ain beat First Division League champions Hatta 2-0, while holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club eased past Khor Fakkan 2-1.
French striker Youssoufou Niakate made it three goals in two matches when Baniyas downed bottom-placed Al-Nasr 4-2, while Mirel Radoi’s Al-Bataeh and Al-Ittihad Kalba played out a goalless stalemate.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week: Andres Iniesta (Emirates Club)
It was, almost, the perfect home debut for Iniesta.
So much is expected of the 39-year-old – from both his new employers, plus the wider UAE game. An Emirates Club Stadium packed with local fans and first-time visitors in Spain or Barcelona shirts came to witness the great man’s opening steps on home soil.
Disappointment, then, was felt everywhere except among the Ajman team and fans when Madan levelled from 12 yards deep into added time. A storybook comeback win sealed by Iniesta, and celebrated vociferously by his watching family, would have gone viral around the globe.
Emirates and Iniesta, however, can be buoyed by the grit and attacking intent exhibited. This followed a commendable 1-0 reversal at Al-Wasl for the predicted relegation battlers.
The evergreen Iniesta shook off the ring rust gained in his innocuous final days at Japan’s Vissel Kobe, being ubiquitous amid punishing late-summer conditions.
An eventful run-out contained a second-minute assist for Lithierry’s header via a free-kick, the frustration of seeing this lead evaporate, rattling the crossbar himself with a second-half set-piece and the goal which appeared to have secured Emirates’ first top-flight win since March 2022.
Iniesta is present to provide star dust to a promoted side badly in need of it.
Unsurprisingly, he produced zero tackles, interceptions, or clearances from center midfield in a familiar 4-3-3 formation. Yet, his goal, assist, and two key passes point to an extant attacking threat.
Excitement already surrounds his next top-flight run-out at Khor Fakkan in a month’s time.
Goal of the week: Youssoufou Niakate (Baniyas)
One signing can change everything.
And this appears to have been the case for Baniyas. Their pre-season procurement of Al-Ettifaq forward Niakate has provided the club with a striker glaringly absent since the then Al-Dhafra loanee Joao Pedro fired them to a shock second place in the 2020 to 2021 season.
In the intervening campaigns, Sweden’s Isaac Thelin netted only six times in 17 matches and Palmeiras loanee Rafael Elias struck four goals in 16 games. They slumped from runners-up, to ninth, and 11th.
Niakate, in contrast, is averaging a goal every 60 minutes and sits joint top of the scoring charts on three alongside the epochal Ali Mabkhout. This winning brace featured an effort rich in promise.
A rollercoaster opening 20 minutes at Baniyas Stadium was capped off by Albania forward Taulant Seferi rolling a hopeful pass toward the penalty box, ex-Portugal under-21 midfielder Francisco Geraldes following with a befuddling step over, and Niakate sweeping home the low finish. This was a trio of summer additions making it 2-2 via an electric combination.
No wonder Niakate and Baniyas feel buoyant.
Coach of the week: Pitso Mosimane (Al-Wahda)
Al-Wahda have a natural-born winner on their hands.
Mosimane’s reputation as a triple CAF Champions League victor and the man who led listless Al-Ahli back to the Roshn Saudi League was dented, somewhat, by an opening home loss to Al-Bataeh for his latest assignment in the ADNOC Pro League.
But any concerns have now been pushed to one side after the dogged derby victory at Al-Jazira.
Al-Wahda simply got the job done against Frank de Boer’s hosts who dominated possession (64 percent to 36 percent), passes (522 to 306), and attempts on goal (13 to seven). The statistics, however, did not paint a true picture of the game.
Blunt Al-Jazira failed to generate any clear-cut chances, with their penalty coming from a misplaced pass in midfield. The visitors would profit via center-back Alaeddine Zouhir’s near-post header from a corner and Fernando’s own goal from Allan’s deep free-kick.
This season may not be pretty from Al-Wahda, but it will probably be effective.
Is Cosmin Olaroiu the problem or solution for Sharjah?
Olaroiu’s Sharjah are such a tricky beast to assess.
Their vaunted line-up which boasted Miralem Pjanic, Paco Alcacer, and Kostas Manolas, plus a host of UAE internationals, trundled home seventh last term, when the title was held as a given. But they rebounded with a remarkable four cup successes.
This staccato story is repeating itself. Last Tuesday’s resolute AFC Champions League play-off victory at Iran’s Tractor in front of 80,898 partisan supporters was followed by Sunday’s meek ADNOC Pro League capitulation at Sharjah Stadium to Al-Wasl.
Does Olaroiu – a serial league winner in Romania, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and China – still have what it takes to inspire top-flight supremacy? Is Sharjah’s ageing squad the wrong profile for a long slog, but perfect for cup glory?
The answers will emerge in the intriguing months ahead.