Damir Krznar felt Al Ain had fortune on their side as Mohamed Ahmed’s superb late goal earned a 1-0 win in the top of the table clash with Al Wahda.
Al Clasico is one of the most famous rivalries in the UAE and it certainly lived up to expectation, with 10,958 fans packed into Al Nahyan Stadium on Saturday night and providing a boisterous atmosphere.
In a tense battle on the field, it always felt like something special would be required to win it, and so it proved. UAE international right-back Ahmed cut out a sloppy cross-field pass from Mourad Batna with eight minutes to go and ran 70 yards before stylishly slotting home the winner past Clarets stopper Mohamed Al Shamsi with his left-foot.
Wahda right-back Mohamed Al Menhali had an opportunity to imitate Ahmed but his late effort crashed off the underside of the crossbar as the Boss held on amid intense late home pressure.
Al Ain assistant Krznar felt the result could have gone either way.
“I think this match was a real derby, a Clasico like you want to say,” said Krznar, the former Dinamo Zagreb and once-capped Croatia left-back.
“I think Al Ain scored because we were maybe a little bit luckier. It could have been 0-0, Wahda could have won. We had luck today, sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
“By lucky I also mean we had good effort, good will, good strength. It was very similar from both sides. Today everything goes on our side, but of course it could have been different.”
The visitors were without suspended strikers Marcus Berg and Douglas as well as UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem, while head coach Zoran Mamic had been banished to the stands for five matches following his outburst at the officials following last week’s 3-3 home draw with Sharjah.
Talisman Omar Abdulrhman featured, but it was his first game back after two months on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
But Krznar said the players have no problems motivating themselves for the big games.
“Our team and players never have a problem with the bigger games, we usually are not so good in the smaller games,” he said.
“We are always good in the derby matches and it was a good day for us. We know we missed three or four players. The result was primary, not the beauty of our play, but in the end we play nice and we win.”
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.”