Coach Javier Aguirre got the response he wanted as Al Wahda threw themselves back into contention for AFC Champions League qualification with a commanding 1-0 victory against rivals Al Nasr.
The ex-Mexico supremo had labelled Friday night’s clash against the third-placed visitors the “most important game of the season” as he seeks to make good on the mandate agreed upon his summer arrival about a return to the continent’s premier club competition for the first time in six years.
A potent weapon in this quest proved the difference at Al Nahyan Stadium. Runaway Arabian Gulf League top scorer Sebastian Tagliabue lashed in during the sixth minute for his 17th strike this term, to which the surprisingly-limp Blue Wave were unable to respond.
The result moved Wahda to within three points of the vanquished – who had centre-back Khalifa Mubarak dismissed at the death for an off-the-ball scuffle – in fourth, also giving renewed hope to Al Wasl, Bani Yas and even Al Shabab about a late push.
The hosts started like a team stung by last weekend’s painful ‘Abu Dhabi Clasico’ loss at champions Al Ain, swamping all over an out-of-sorts Blue Wave.
Their endeavour gained instant reward, lethal Argentine marksman Tagliabue firing into the bottom corner after being played into space by on-rushing defensive midfielder Sultan Al Ghaferi.
Aguirre’s men went on to spurn a number of chances, right-back Mohamed Al Menhali firing over from close range, Tagliabue injuring UAE U-23 goalkeeper Ahmed Shambieh with a rasping shot and exciting youngster Mohamed Al Akbari lashing wide from a tight angle.
Al Dhafra can afford no more slip-ups during the trio of imminent showdowns with their relegation rivals if they are to beat the drop, according to striker Makhete Diop.
The Western Knights currently sit in the dreaded bottom two after a 2-0 defeat at last-placed Al Shaab on Saturday left them five points from safety.
A defining run of fixtures awaits in the next fortnight, beginning with tomorrow’s clash with 10th-placed Fujairah at Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Stadium. With clashes to follow against fellow strugglers Emirates Club and Al Jazira, Senegal striker Diop urged his team-mates to wrestle back control of their destiny.
“The league is still not finished,” said 27-year-old Diop. “We are five points or less away from Sharjah, Emirates Club, Fujairah and Al Jazira. “I think Al Dhafra must focus on the future.
“I feel for me, we will stay up if we fight together until the end. I believe we still have a chance.
“Why? Because we still have to play teams who are near us.
“We play Fujairah, Emirates Club and Al Jazira in the coming weeks. I think we have a good chance if we make a good result. Dhafra have only a good future as we can play with a five-point gap.”
Changes at Dhafra during the winter transfer window saw Morocco pair Adil Hermach and Issam El Adoua joined by Syria forward Omar Khrbin.
Diop believes the new boys’ experience could prove the difference in the coming months.
He said: “This is good as they help us with their experience. Game by game we are improving alongside each other, so it will be good for us Inshallah.”
Al Wahda head coach Javier Aguirre is dreaming of the AFC Champions League and has labelled his side’s clash with Al Nasr as the biggest game of their season.
Wahda welcome the Blue Wave to Al Nahyan Stadium tomorrow with Aguirre looking to halve the six-point deficit to Ivan Jovanovic’s team.
Third-placed Nasr currently occupy the final Champions League place and the Mexican has been drumming the significance of this match into his players every day.
“This is the most important game of the season, because Al Nasr are in third place,” said the 57-year-old.
“They have the last ticket to the Champions League, so this is our target. We can cut this gap from six to three. We have eight games in front of us so until the end we will fight. This is the most important game and I am repeating this to my players all day long.”
The former Atletico Madrid supremo said he was encouraged by his side’s performance against Arabian Gulf League leaders and reigning champions Al Ain in their last game.
AGL top scorer Sebastian Tagliabue gave Wahda the lead at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium last Friday with his 16th strike, before the home side fought back with Douglas and Omar Abdulrahman goals to claim a 2-1 victory.
Wahda and Nasr drew 0-0 in the reverse fixture in October, a game in which Nasr forward Jires Kembo Ekoko was blamed for getting Wahda defender Mohammed Al Menhali sent off, but Aguirre dismissed suggestions that would matter in this game.
“I have no problem (with Kembo). I forgot what happened until now. We are focused on the game, nothing else,” insisted Aguirre, who claimed his club’s fans can carry the Clarets to victory against the Blue Wave.
“We will play in our stadium so we have to start strongly. They (the fans) are important for us.
“Against Al Jazira they were fantastic and we won. They supported us in Al Ain too and we thank them.
“When fans come to the match it helps the players play better.”
Aguirre also believes goals will be at a premium, with the league’s fourth and sixth-best defences on show.
“We won’t have much space to play and there won’t be many goals, maybe it will be 0-0 or 1-0, but not five or four, not lots of goals. It will be a tight game,” he said.
Nasr counterpart Jovanovic, meanwhile, described Wahda as a “worthy adversary”, and said he was impressed by their performance in the Garden City.
“Our games against them are always strong and interesting because it is a good team,” said the 53-year-old Serb.
“It is a worthy adversary, they played an excellent match against the leaders, but lost. I think that this confirms that they can provide high levels of football in the next game, but we know our goals, and we will try to provide everything in our inventory (to win).”