With each passing performance, evidence grows that Al Jazira have mined another source of Asian football’s rarest commodity – a home-grown goal scorer.
In a 2018 AFC Champions League-opener against Qatar’s Al Gharafa that featured Netherlands superstar Wesley Sneijder, 2015 Asian Cup top scorer Ali Mabkhout of the UAE and prolific Iran centre forward Mehdi Taremi, 22-year-old forward Ahmed Al Attas provided the star turn.
Bursting with confidence imbued by reaching a career-best tally of five strikes in 11 2017/18 Arabian Gulf League games, a bouncing ball 40 yards out was met with a ferocious half-volley to make it 3-1 to the committed Pride of Abu Dhabi in Monday’s eventual 3-2 win.
A breakthrough season had its landmark moment. Now, it is up to both player and country to ensure his precipitous trajectory extends to being a weapon of mass destruction at January 2019’s Asian Cup.
The UAE are unique among Asian nations in being blessed with two proven, elite strikers in Mabkhout and 2015 AFC Player of the Year, Ahmed Khalil. A third option isn’t being greedy – it could be the difference between failure or success next year on home soil.
Yet, the coming man has been overlooked throughout Alberto Zaccheroni’s four-month Whites tenure. This cannot continue.
Always respected for his work-rate and technical acumen, question marks had existed about whether a ruthless edge could be added to Al Attas’ play.
This worry is repeated across a continent in which prolific, indigenous marksman are few and far between.
Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei notched 11 more times than his nearest compatriot in the 2017 Chinese Super League and Al Nassr’s Mohammad Al Sahlawi is back among the goals in the 2017/18 Saudi Professional League after two miserable campaigns. The top-scoring Australian in the ongoing A-League, Newcastle Jets’ Andrew Nabbout, has less than half the tally of Sydney FC’s 20-goal Bobo.
Al Attas had struck only seven goals in 34 AGL matches from 2013/14-2016/17.
But a growing importance is detailed by the fact his nine 2017/18 starts is one more than he had totalled throughout the previous period (eight) in its entirety.
His marked improvement is a credit to himself and his club. Now, it’s time for the UAE to bear the fruits of this labour.
Lethal Brazilian forward Fabio De Lima’s superb opener for Al Wasl was not enough to prevent a losing return to the AFC Champions League after 10 years away, substitute Baghdad Bounedjah turning the game around with his late brace in Al Sadd’s painful 2-1 victory.
In a tight Group C-opener, De Lima brilliantly found the bottom corner in the 26th minute. Algeria centre forward Bounedjah then emerged to convert Spain icon Xavi’s cutting pass and punish awful defending on the stroke of injury time.
Here, are the major talking points:
NAIVE CHEETAHS GET CLAWED
Wasl coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena will regret the accuracy of his pre-match prediction.
The ex-Argentina left-back noted a glaring disparity in experience to the QNB Stars League’s second-placed team – he was proved right.
Wasl’s thin, top-heavy squad lacked the nous to prevent Xavi wrestling control from their grasp after a bright start. Sadd replacements Akram Afif and Bounedjah also excelled.
You can possess attacking talent to envy, but this elite level requires much more.
XAVI’S TIMELESS ABILITY
The near 6,000-strong crowd at Zabeel Stadium were witnessing some of the final acts in one of football’s best careers.
At 38-years old and with retirement assured this summer, Xavi’s role is now to provide constant direction and guidance to his team rather than consistent excellence.
Not that the man who played 767 times for Barcelona and 133 times for Spain cannot still influence proceedings from midfield. His inspired assist for Bounedjah’s 79th-minute leveller dissected a packed penalty box.
WASL’S DECADE OF CHANGE
Even in defeat, Wasl must reflect on how far they’ve come.
The Cheetahs dug their claws into the 1980s, winning four of their seven Arabian Gulf League crowns.
But a tumultuous few years were witnessed between May 21, 2008’s 1-1 draw against Iran’s Saipa in the ACL and Tuesday night’s continental return versus Sadd.
A steep decline was witnessed after 2006/07’s last title triumph; controversial Argentina icon Maradona turning them into a circus act in 2011/12 and relegation even being flirted with in 2013/14. They should not forget this.
A weakened Al Wahda were put to the sword in their brutal Group B-opener by Uzbekistan powerhouse Lokomotiv Tashkent, for whom attacking midfielder Ikram Alibaev may have already wrapped up the 2018 AFC Champions League’s goal-of-the-season award with his 52-yard lob in this 5-0 hammering.
With foreign stars Sebastian Tagliabue, Mourad Batna and Rim Chang-woo all left in Abu Dhabi, a youthful Clarets side were ripped asunder by rampant hosts on Monday. Brazilian centre forward Nivaldo slotted in the deserved 25th-minute opener, prior to a painful second-half collapse.
A trio of strikes went in from the 53-59th minute, the highlight being Uzbekistan international Alibaev’s stylish flick and precision chip from within his own half. In this spell, centre-back Saleem Sultan also erroneously slotted into the roof of Wahda’s net and ex-Al Jazira forward Sardor Rashidov found the bottom corner with stand-in goalkeeper Rashid Ali culpable.
The scoring was then rounded off with three minutes left by Alibaev’s powerful header from the edge of the penalty box.
Clarets coach Laurentiu Reghecampf must hope the trauma from this day does not transfer to Thursday’s quarter-final decider in the Arabian Gulf Cup against Al Ain, or their continuing challenge for the Arabian Gulf League.