Goals remain a precious commodity for champions Al Jazira and merged superpower Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, Friday night’s scoreless stalemate seeing more ground ceded in the Arabian Gulf League’s title race.
With each dead end found and wayward ball sent up from midfield, further evidence mounted that neither can hope to live with vivid leaders Al Wasl.
In 90 stodgy minutes at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, underwhelming Brazilian forward Romarinho shot straight at UAE No1 Majed Nasser at the start of the second half for the hosts and Makhete Diop sent a series of hopeful headers over at the other end. Not good enough for teams of such collective talent.
In a repeat of the recent dour clash with Wasl, the home side’s problems were predictable. UAE hot shot Ali Mabkhout was only fit enough for a static cameo off the substitutes’ bench and Ahmed Khalil was denied a reunion with his ex-Al Ahli team-mates because of predictable injury.
With little more than a month left until he runs out at the Club World Cup, much more is also required from ineffectual ex-France anchorman Lassana Diarra.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi are already eight points off the pace and appear on course for the sort of miserly title defence last witnessed by – the now defunct – Ahli in 2014/15, whose current guise made it a worrying three 0-0 draws in a row.
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This is a problem that will alarm coach Cosmin Olaroiu. His charges were again unable to find a way through despite boasting a front line of €17 million (Dh70m) record buy Moussa Sow, fellow Senegal international Diop and roving Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor.
This funk cannot be allowed to continue after the international break.
Opportunities were at a premium, Diop and Romarinho going closest. Late drama was provided when Luvannor screamed for a penalty in added time, but a foul was given against him from the collision with centre-back Fares Juma.
Meanwhile, Sharjah escaped from the bottom as Brazilian striker Welliton’s solitary effort against Emirates Club earned a first win of the campaign.
The defeated Falcons were watched on by ex-UAE Under-23 boss Dr Abdullah Misfer. He is a leading contender to takeover permanently following his dismissal by Jordan.
Mohamed Al Shehhi has a second chance with boyhood club Al Wahda and the Emirati wideman is determined to take it with both hands after enjoying a flying start to the 2017/18 season.
The 29-year-old has spent over a decade at the capital city club but had fallen out of favour under previous coach Javier Aguirre – failing to make any appearances last term and only a handful in former Atletico Madrid supremo Aguirre’s maiden campaign in 2015/16.
After spending time on loan in the wilderness of the Western Region at Al Dhafra last season, Al Shehhi has featured prominently in new coach Laurentiu Reghecampf’s reign at Al Nahyan Stadium, scoring two goals in six Arabian Gulf League appearances and notching once in two Arabian Gulf Cup games.
And now that he has forced his way back into the first-team picture, UAE international Al Shehhi is determined to stay there.
“It’s been difficult,” admitted the winger of his Wahda exile.
“After 16 months I didn’t play but now I come back. I want to say thank you to the coach, he’s helped me so much. I worked hard in the pre-season camp and I think I deserve to play, and I will do a good job. We have great players and we are ready to play.”
Al Shehhi is in the final year of his Clarets contract, but wants to stay at the club he has spent his entire career at.
“I will try my maximum and I hope to stay for a few more years in Al Wahda,” he said.
“I am in my last year of my contract but I hope to stay with Al Wahda for a long time and I hope to achieve something for our fans this season.”
Part of Al Shehhi’s lack of opportunities under Aguirre’s regime was down to a stint with the Army, but the veteran also revealed the ex-Japan and Mexico manager had asked him to adapt to a central midfield role, which he felt unable to do.
“I have maybe a small problem with the last coach,” Al Shehhi said of Aguirre – who led Wahda to the 2015/16 AG Cup and signed off with a President’s Cup triumph in May.
“He wanted me to play in the number six position. I cannot play in the centre. I tried but I was not very good. I also went to the Army and I think I went there at a good time, as I was not playing. But then I finished in the Army and I am happy to be back.”
Al Shehhi is enjoying his new lease of life and feels confident that the Clarets can shed their tag of perennial nearly men and challenge for the AGL title this season.
They are third under Reghecampf’s stewardship, just a point of joint leaders Al Ain and Al Wasl, and host the Boss in a mouthwatering top of the table Al Clasico clash on Saturday.
And if victory can be obtained in front of their home fans, Al Shehhi believes it will prove they can compete for a first title in eight seasons.
“The last few years we were in the middle of the table but now we fight to be champions,” said Al Shehhi following a 0-0 draw with fellow challenges Shabab Al Ahli Dubai on Friday.
“We are happy, we work hard, we are a family and the coach works with us very well, and all the players are happy with him. If we win the next game I think we have a big chance to make something this season.
“I think we played a good game (against Shabab Al Ahli). We maybe had a problem in the first half but second half the coach gave us another solution to play.
“We changed the line-up, (Balazsz) Dzsudzsak came in and we played well. The most important thing when playing away is not to lose. I think we deserved to win but it’s not bad to draw at Shabab Al Ahli.”
It’s hard to please UAE football fans, typified by Zoran Mamic being criticised for a perceived lack of vitality in Al Ain’s play this season despite ascending to the top of the Arabian Gulf League this week.
The Boss went top of the AGL for the first time this season following Saturday’s 2-0 away win at Emirates Club and, along with Al Wasl, are the only team who remain unbeaten in 2017/18.
Yet in his pre-match press conference ahead of welcoming Sharjah today, Mamic was asked about the media’s criticism of his team’s performances – despite scoring a joint-second 12 goals in five games.
“I respect the views of the media and the masses but it is not necessary to agree with them,” said the Croatian, whose team have been performing even without injured star Omar Abdulrahman, who has missed all but one of the Boss’ league games.
“We can talk for hours about the team’s performance and methods. Last season Al Ain performances were fun to watch but we lost important points against teams not competing for the title.
“But this season we have managed to reap points against rivals both near the top and bottom of the league.”
Mamic will again be without midfield maestro Abdulrahman at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium today, with UAE defenders Mohamed Ahmed and Ismail Ahmed and midfielders Mohamed Abdulrahman and Bandar Al Ahbabi also out, while Mamic is sweating on the availability of Japan defender Tsukasa Shiotani.
“I don’t need to look for any excuses or justifications about the team’s performance, I focus only on achieving victories,” added Mamic.
“A performance without the result does not mean anything. We all wish to win by more than five goals in all our games, but we have to deal realistically with the desires and wishes of everyone.”
Ajman coach Ayman Al Ramady, meanwhile, has denied that the Orange Brigade’s meeting with Emirates today is a “six pointer” as both teams battle for points in what is deemed a clash of two relegation candidates.
Ajman gained their first win in the previous round with a 1-0 win at Al Nasr, but Egyptian Al Ramady admitted the player has been in good spirits this week.
the players in good spirits not only previous win victory, but because the team under the lead in all the matches convincingly and spirit more than good.
“I remained optimistic before every game, despite the results that preceded the victory over Al Nasr,” he said.
“There was no sense of frustration from results of previous games, the team spirit was not shaken at all. I have big confidence in the team’s ability to achieve positive results.”
Al Ramady is targeting 22 or 23 points as the watermark his side will need to achieve safety this term, adding: “This match it is not possible to win six points, each match is important but we cannot win more than three points.”