Rodolfo Arruabarrena is not giving up hope of winning the Arabian Gulf League title, although he insists Al Wasl can’t afford another insipid performance like Friday’s 1-1 draw with relegation-threatened Ittihad Kalba.
The Cheetahs threatened to run away with the points early on as they peppered the visitors’ goal, but Goran Tufegdzic’s side grew into the game and arguably had enough chances to take all three points rather than the one the draw earned them.
Former Al Ahli striker Ciel was guilty of wasting two glorious chances at Zabeel Stadium, while a crucial last-ditch block by captain Waheed Ismail in the final minutes prevented Bakary Kone from netting a winner.
“There were moments I liked my team and moments I didn’t like my team. We made too many mistakes defensively,” said Arruabarrena bluntly.
“When we are playing these teams from the middle to the bottom we have to show why we are on the top, and today we didn’t show that.”
Although Wasl are unbeaten in their last five league games, the gap to runaway AGL leaders Al Jazira is 10 points. The Argentine though is not giving up hope of bringing a first league title to the Bur Dubai club in a decade.
“Yes, we still have hope that we can win the title,” said Arruabarrena, a former left-back who won six caps for La Albiceleste from 1994-2006.
“If you look at the points to play for you can see we still have a chance. I think that the goal difference to Al Jazira is too big, but there are some points to make up. The good thing is that we are close to the other teams. We have seven matches left so 21 points to play for.
“It is true Al Jazira is strong and have played well, so they have a big difference, but we have to carry on working. There are still lots of points for each team and some games against each other.”
Wasl travel to reigning champions Ahli, a point above them, and welcome Al Ain, who they are level on 40 points with, in April, and the 41-year-old ex-Boca Juniors coach is refusing to throw in the towel.
He said: “We have to work and I don’t say that it is over. After we will see at the end who will finish first, second, third and fourth.
“If we have the same problems we had in defence today again, it will be very difficult to win with that. We will have a rest then Sunday we start thinking about Bani Yas, which will be very difficult.”
Al Jazira have been head and shoulders above the rest of their rivals this season, but right-back Mohammed Fawzi wants the Pride of Abu Dhabi to transfer their domestic form onto the continent.
The Arabian Gulf League leaders have been imperious in sweeping to the top of the table following a dreadful 2015/16 campaign that had promised much but saw them eventually limp home in seventh – a distant 29 points behind eventual champions Al Ahli.
This season, however, they have been mesmerising. Henk ten Cate’s men have lost just once in 19 games – a 2-0 defeat to Al Nasr in December, and they are nine points clear of the second-placed Red Knights with seven games remaining.
But, as the Abu Dhabi giants get set to kick off their 2017 AFC Champions League campaign at Qatar’s Lekhwiya on Monday, UAE international Fawzi hopes they can mix with Asia’s finest after a woeful 2016 campaign.
“The Champions League is something different for me and the players and we are waiting for this competition,” said the 26-year-old, who arrived at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in the summer from AGL rivals Al Ain.
“First we have to play well to represent our country and then to show all the people that UAE football is good. It’s also about how you market yourself in Asia, lots more people will be watching us and this is what the players need.
“I hope Al Jazira do well in the competition, like we are doing in the league, and I am excited to start the Champions League.”
Amid their struggles last term, Jazira capitulated in the Champions League, finishing rock bottom of Group C with just one point – posting the competition’s second worst record after Thailand’s Buriram United.
But Fawzi insists the players are not thinking about last season.
“We didn’t turn back and look at what happened last year, we don’t think about it,” he added.
“We just have to not think about last year. This year is different. Jazira have young players who are hungry to play and win each game. I’m happy because they are helping me since coming here and I’m excited to start.”
And, even before a ball is kicked, Fawzi admitted the capital city club have ambitions to go far in Asia’s premier competition.
He added: “For me I want to go far. I want to go far in each competition, whatever it is, even if it’s PlayStation. This is what we like at Jazira. We want to go far and this mindset is how we can be successful.”
Fawzi has played at the UAE’s three biggest clubs in his relatively short career – Ahli, Al Ain and now Jazira – but he was either too young or too much of a bit-part player to really establish himself at either the Red Knights or the Boss.
Despite winning an AGL medal with both Ahli in 2008/09 and Al Ain in 2014/15, Fawzi, 27 on Wednesday, knew he had to make a change, which was behind his decision to uproot from the Garden City in the summer.
“I came here to fight, to win, to be a champion,” added Fawzi.
“Maybe when I was at Al Ain I played but not much because of injury, but this is something different here. You have to think about yourself sometimes, but wherever you go you have to fight. If what you do doesn’t come good you have to change. This is normal.
“I am happy to be with my brothers and with my friends at Jazira and I hope they are as happy as me. We are looking forward and inshallah we will do something different in the Champions League compared to last season.”
And the maturing defender acknowledges that with exciting youngsters like Khalfan Mubarak, Saif Khalfan, Salim Rashid, Mohamed Jamal and Ahmed Al Attas around him, he is in a position to offer advice to the next generation.
He added: “Is it the happiest season in my career? I don’t know because I was also a champion with Al Ahli. It’s a better season for me. I’m taking responsibility in the team now, so in that sense it’s my best year.
“Now I’m 26. Before I was young and I had older, big players helping me. Now I am one of the senior players so I have to take my brothers with me. It’s different. It’s not better, not worse, but different, and it means a lot to me (to be playing regularly).”
A missed Fabio De Lima penalty and conceding two minutes after they had made the breakthrough tells the tale of Al Wasl’s fading Arabian Gulf League title hopes.
In reality this point could have easily been a defeat had former Al Ahli forward Ciel not squandered two guilt-edged chances for Ittihad Kalba, who edged closer to survival with a 17th point from 19 games.
From the moment usually prolific Brazilian talisman De Lima fired his tame spot kick at Kalba goalkeeper Ibrahim Essa, you could feel an air of unease sweep across Zabeel Stadium.
They were euphoric when Ronaldo Mendes opened the scoring with a deserved goal 15 minutes into the second half, tucking in neatly after Caio Canedo’ had bamboozled opposite number Ali Saeed.
It was, after all, Mendes who had won the first half penalty after being wiped out by clumsy centre back Yasser Abdullah, before rocking the Kalba crossbar with a fierce, dipping drive after finding space on the edge of the box.
But, just as the noise levels began to rise they were silenced by a truly magnificent goal from one-time West Ham striker Modibo Maiga.
The 29-year- old majestically controlled a long ball, before shrugging off his marker, turning and firing in a crisp equaliser under Humaid Abdulla.
The Cheetahs’ fans fumed but it could have been far worse. Ciel ballooned horribly over after being set clear in the first half by a beautiful first-time pass, while the Brazilian again skewed wide when released in the 74th minute.
De Lima, uncharacteristically off colour in front of goal, wasted another glorious chance on the stroke of half time, his weak effort parried by the alert Essa.
The man with 20 AGL goals to his name this season must have thought redemption was his with nine minutes remaining but his beautiful arced shot beat Essa but also the far post.
There was still time for a Kalba winner but Wasl skipper Waheed Ismail recovered brilliantly to thwart Bakary Kone after the hosts had failed to clear.
Mendes brought a late save out of Essa, with Caio unable to prod the rebound home, with the result leaving the Cheetahs 10 points adrift of Al Jazira with seven games remaining.