Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s hopes of salvaging their sorry debut season have received another blow after star Senegalese striker Makhete Diop became the seventh player unavailable to them for the foreseeable future.
Attempts to weld the merged outfit’s squad together for their inaugural Arabian Gulf League-campaign have been hampered throughout by chronic availability issues.
Diop, 30, is now set for his second sustained absence of 2017/18 thanks to strained knee ligaments incurred during Friday’s goalless draw at title-chasing Al Wahda. He is projected to be absent for more than a month, robbing coach Mahdi Ali of a figure whose scored a club-leading 13 times in 17 run-outs.
This frustrating spell of inactivity should coincide with both legs of the Arabian Gulf Cup-semi-finals against Dubai rivals Al Wasl on March 9 and 22. The coveted December 2016 signing from Al Dhafra is also in a race against time to feature in April 12’s President’s Cup quarter-final against Sharjah.
Of their foreign quartet, only Croatian forward Ante Erceg and South Korean playmaker Moon Chang-jin are presently available.
Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor has made only eight top-flight-appearances because of a serious ankle problem and versatile UAE right-back Manei Mohammed underwent major knee surgery in October. The quartet of Saeed Ahmed, Saoud Abdurazaq, Abdelaziz Sanqour and Rashed Hassan are absent because of national service.
Seventh-placed Shabab Al Ahli’s stalemate at Wahda made it just one win in their last 13 AGL fixtures. They next welcome champions Al Jazira to Rashid Stadium on Thursday.
Confident Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has insisted the fate of the Arabian Gulf League’s title race remains “in our hands”, despite warming up for Thursday’s top-of-the-table clash against Al Wahda with a surprise first loss of the campaign at Sharjah.
Brazilian forward Vander Vieira’s brace of penalties and a killer third from compatriot Lulinha ensured the leaders were beaten 3-1 in the top flight at the 17th time of asking.
Ranks impacted by bereavements to UAE pair Ahmed Khalil and Ahmed Barman, plus Sweden no9 Marcus Berg’s illness, ensured Saturday’s visitors to Khalid Bin Mohammed Stadium could not respond after 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman had levelled things up with a spot-kick on 15 minutes.
This shock result was made more infuriating by the fact Wahda recorded a goalless draw at home to inconsistent Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club a day prior. But Mamic had no fears about the imminent match at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium as he tries to guide the UAE’s most-decorated club to a first success since 2015/16, with just one point separating the sides.
He said: “The fate of the team is still in our hands, despite the loss to Sharjah. We now wait to play Al Wahda at home, greeting them in front of our fans in the next round in the best way.
“We did not show the level required and did not take advantage of the opportunities that we had the front of the opponent’s goal.
“Al Wahda also faltered in this round, but such things happen in football.
“We have the opportunity to improve.
“We had several problems during our preparations for the match in Sharjah. Marcus Berg had a severe cold that affected his body temperature and he actually joined the team only an hour before the start of the game.
“We also missed Ahmed Khalil and Ahmed Barman.”
It has been a frustrating few weeks for Al Ain. They had already drawn both their opening Group D-fixtures in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
This negative mood forced Mamic to explain his in-game decisions in Sharjah.
He said: “I brought on [utility wide man] Bander Al Ahbabi to take advantage of his speed, and pulled [UAE centre midfielder] Amer Abdulrahman after he received a yellow card. He’s also not yet reached the degree of readiness required after his return from injury.
“The changes we made were necessary and can sometimes be hit or miss, but today we did not make mistakes with our technical decisions.”
Another week of action in the Arabian Gulf League threw up a catalogue of stunning results and fine performances.
Here are the men we thought shone the most:
Player of the week
Vander Vieira got a brace from the penalty spot as the King stunned leaders Al Ain, but it was his young Emirati team-mate who did much of the damage. The pace of Rashid, 23, unsettled the Boss backline throughout and saw him felled by UAE No1 Khalid Essa for the second penalty. The only thing missing for the forward was a goal – he’s yet to get off the mark in the 2017/18 competition.
Goal of the week
The UAE predator has missed too many matches to retain his top-scorer crown, but still remains the competition’s premier finisher. A brace versus Hatta included an illustrative second goal. Mabkhout first had the composure to ward off an advancing goalkeeper and then provided the precision to find the top corner in a box packed with five Hatta defenders. What a striker.
Coach of the week
(Dibba Al Fujairah)
A painful wait of 147 days between top-flight triumphs was ended this weekend by the Fishermen, and in some style. High-flying Al Wasl were put to the sword during a match in which Dibba defended stoically and restricted the Cheetahs to long-range shots from Fabio De Lima. This morale-boosting victory was perfectly timed – fellow strugglers Hatta are up next on Friday.
Who wants to claim the title?
A defining week awaits in the AGL. Long-term leaders Al Ain and second-placed Al Wahda are separated by just a point heading into Thursday’s summit meeting at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. But both sides are stumbling. Al Ain were dismantled 3-1 at Sharjah and have drawn both 2018 AFC Champions League ties. Wahda drew 0-0 with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and come up well short in their Asian contests. Whoever picks themselves up off the canvas can get a defining result, with just five games left.