Stand-in striker Hassan Mohammed notched a superb late header to salvage a draw for Al Wasl against fallen champions Al Jazira, but critical ground in the Arabian Gulf League’s title race continues to be lost.
In the absences of star attackers Caio Canedo and Ali Mabkhout for both teams, Brazilian forward Romarinho’s sharp instincts had put the Pride of Abu Dhabi ahead in first-half injury-time.
Here, we examine the main talking points:
CHEETAHS KEEP THEIR BITE
A tight ship is run at Wasl, meaning the bottom line is more important than breaking budget.
Their squad is, certainly, not as deep as title rivals Al Ain or Al Wahda and the one-match ban for 12-goal striker Caio Canedo threatened to sink them against Jazira.
Instead, Cheetahs replacement Hassan Mohammed notched a fine leveller. Substitutes Anthony Caceres and Mohamed Surour turned a losing midfield battle around.
They might well have enough to keep this a three-way fight.
ONLY PRIDE TO PLAY FOR
The AGL has witnessed some wretched title defences in recent years.
Al Ain limped home sixth in 2013/14. Al Ahli finished a place (seventh) and five points worse off (38) the following season.
Current holders Jazira did surprisingly well on Wednesday night. They rattled the woodwork twice and went ahead through Romarinho’s tap-in.
But the institutional chaos which has gripped them is summed up by bargain-basement Oman internationals Harib Al Saadi and Mohammed Al Musalami coming in during a winter that saw stellar summer additions Ahmed Khalil and Lassana Diarra alarmingly exit.
They could end the round in sixth, a cavernous 16 points from the top.
Wasl coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena cut a surprisingly skittish figure.
The ex-Argentina full-back was coiled like a spring on the touchline. A tactics board also looked like it was about to be snapped during the interval.
Maybe Jazira have this effect on him – he’s recorded no wins in five meetings. Or maybe it’s the dawning reality of a probable six-point deficit to Al Ain, with only six games left?
Al Ain will continue to reap benefits from the “genuine feelings of joy” experienced by Hussein El Shahat after his stellar first month was rewarded with a chance to gatecrash Egypt‘s World Cup 2018 squad.
El Shahat, 26, rocketed in a hat-trick during Saturday’s 7-0 demolition of promoted Ajman. This saw the midfielder move onto an incredible five goals and four assists for the Arabian Gulf League title chasers since a deadline-day loan switch from Misr lel-Makasa.
Such fine form has not gone unnoticed by his native country, who are preparing for a first appearances in 28 years at the finals. Impressed Pharaohs coach Hector Cuper this week handed the player – who last year featured in two unofficial friendlies – a spot in March’s training camp in Switzerland, alongside the likes of Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to find suitable words to express the genuine feelings of joy,” El Shahat told his club’s website ahead of Thursday’s visit by Emirates Club. “The call I received meant a lot since joining Egypt’s national team is a great dream, especially as we are on the verge of our official participation in the World Cup.”
Breaking free of mid-table Misr did not prove easy after scoring nine goals in the 2017/18 Egyptian Premier League.
El Shahat said: “Two offers submitted by Egypt’s Al Ahly and Zamalek were rejected.
“However, when the club’s chairman, Mohamed Abdul Salam, who considers all the players as his sons, told me about the offer made by Al Ain I did not hesitate. I did confirm explicitly that I have the desire to enter into a professional experience as a gateway for me to join the international list.”
Elsewhere, bottom-placed Al Dhafra could be cut adrift if fellow strugglers Dibba Al Fujairah inflict a ninth defeat in 16 matches.
On Friday, returning coach Ivan Jovanovic will aim for a perfect third victory in three games when Al Nasr travel to Ajman. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club won for the first time since October 14 last time out in the AGL, and now face Sharjah.
Reigning top scorer Ali Mabkhout will miss the trip to Zabeel Stadium with the Pride of Abu Dhabi after an appeal was rejected on Sunday against the controversial four-match domestic ban accrued on UAE duty for breaking curfew. Their opponents will need to manage both the psychological damage incurred during the epic 4-3 defeat last time out at second-placed Al Wahda, plus the absence of 12-goal Brazilian striker Caio Canedo through a suspension of his own.
Speaking before the clash, Jazira assistant coach Harry Decheiver was intrigued to see how the situation would play out.
He said: “Our physical and mental readiness for this important and difficult meeting in the league is key as Ali Mabkhout will be absent from the match because of the suspension issued by the UAE Football Association.
“The absence of Caio will certainly affect them, but the situation is similar to Jazira. There will be no advantage for either team at the expense of the other in this area.
“Overall, the team’s attack includes players like Ahmed Al Attas and Zayed Al Ameri. We have confidence in their ability to compensate.”
Burgeoning UAE prospect Al Attas, 22, is most likely to lead the line. His tally of five goals in 10 AGL games is already the best of his nascent career.
Jazira stormed to the top-flight crown in 2017/18, but Yasser Al Juneibi’s stunning own goal – which has gone viral across the globe – helped end a four-match winless streak last time out against bottom-placed Al Dhafra.
Meanwhile, Moroccan forward Mourad Batna has declared championship chasers Wahda cannot spare struggling Hatta.
The Clarets survived two red cards and an injury-time penalty to edge their classic meeting with Wasl. A different challenge will be poised by Hatta, for whom a fine 3-1 win at Sharjah last week saw them edge away from the drop zone.
“We have to focus during the meeting, record as many goals as possible and not squander any opportunities,” said Batna.
A fourth win in a row will put Wahda top, ahead of Al Ain’s match against Emirates Club on Thursday.