ALL ON THE LINE
First versus second with one point separating them, a tempestuous Abu Dhabi rivalry and many of the competition’s finest footballers – this is a fixture to cherish.
Hosts Al Ain are long-term pacesetters with five games left. But they face the pressure of ending an uncharacteristic trophy drought stretching back to August 2015’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup and suffered a shock first league defeat this term last weekend.
For second-placed Wahda, successive seasons have brought the Arabian Gulf Cup and President’s Cup – can they make the last step?
A shootout between two of the AGL’s elite gunslingers could define this cataclysmic clash.
Both Al Ain’s 3-1 reversal at Sharjah and Wahda’s disappointing goalless draw with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club can be traced back to problems up top.
A heavy cold limited 12-goal Sweden No9 Marcus Berg’s involvement on Saturday, while Sebastian Tagliabue – he of 103 strikes for the Clarets – was banned a day prior.
These strikers are proven deadshots. Who best supplies their ammunition should prevail.
AMOORY’S MOMENT TO SHINE
Now would be an apposite time for 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman to deliver a performance worthy of his lofty reputation.
Amoory, 26, has been left to chase his best form all term. He began 2017/18 with a nagging injury, was controversially banned domestically in January for infractions on UAE duty and has seen Egypt new boy Hussein El Shahat chip away at his authority.
His glorious talent remains unquestioned. Belatedly making the most of it is key for the Boss.
Ivan Jovanovic insists he is not afraid to park the bus – or even a train – as his Al Nasr go in search of a precious Bur Dubai Derby victory against fierce rivals Al Wasl, although he hopes his men will put on a purring performance more befitting a Porsche.
The Blue Wave head the short distance to Zabeel Stadium on Wednesday to take on the Cheetahs in a game with huge implications.
Win and Nasr will go level on points with a home side in relative freefall in third place – five and six points adrift of Al Wahda and Al Ain at the top of the table.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men began the season with 11 games unbeaten in the Arabian Gulf League, but they have now lost three of their last six – including against both title rivals, while they suffered a demoralising 2-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Dibba Al Fujairah on Saturday.
In contrast, Nasr have been resurgent since Jovanovic returned for a second stint in charge last month – 15 months after being dismissed and replaced by former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
After losing to Wahda in his opening match, the Serb has led the Blue Wave to four straight wins and four clean sheets, and they are now eying AFC Champions League qualification.
“I think it will be as strong and distinctive as the usual meetings of the two teams in the derby,” said Jovanovic, who has been out of work since leaving Nasr.
“If performing in a way to put a train in front of our defensive area gives me the victory I will stick to that, not just a bus.
“The possibilities available to my players are that I hope they have the potential of a Porsche car to change this method.
“I am proud of what the players in the last games have shown in terms of a desperate performance and a strong desire to win. This is what has won us four consecutive games. I am very optimistic and I hope this will be the fifth consecutive win in the derby match at Al Wasl.”
In addition to a rotten run of form, Wasl are also without a host of key players, including the banned Abdullah Saleh, while striker Caio Canedo is injured, as are Hassan Mohammed, Abdulrahman Ali and Wahid Ismail.
But midfielder Abdullah Al Naqbi has stressed the importance of a victory and says that despite their lack of form, a win in the derby could change everything.
“We face a strong adversary and we seek to win despite the difficulties we are facing in this bad period we are going through, but our players are capable of providing a strong performance and getting a win,” said Al Naqbi, who claims the AGL title remains within their reach.
“We believe that we have a chance to get the title and we’re going into the next game as if we are fighting the finals and we will fight them all until we win.”
In Wednesday’s other game, meanwhile, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club host reigning champions Al Jazira, where a win would bring them to within a point of their fifth-placed visitors.
Optimism at Rashid Stadium will not be high, however, with Mahdi Ali’s men stuck in the mire of mid-table with just one win obtained in their last 13 league games.
They will also be without sublime Senegalese striker Makhete Diop, who suffered a knee injury in the 0-0 draw with title-chasing Al Wahda on Friday.
Ali confirmed the 30-year-old frontman will be out for between four and six weeks, meaning he is likely to miss both legs of the Arabian Gulf Cup semi-final against Wasl on March 9 and 22, and could also miss the President’s Cup quarter-final tie with Sharjah on April 12.
“The player suffered a new knee injury, requiring no surgical intervention, but a natural treatment and rest, and therefore he will be absent between four and six weeks,” said former UAE tactician Ali.
“We are hoping that the team finds the appropriate alternative to compensate for his absence, recognising that the player is of great importance to us because he is an outstanding striker and has a big role in the front line.”
Jazira counterpart Henk ten Cate has led his side to just two defeats in their last 14 AGL games and claims the hosts have adequate alternatives to replace the deadly Diop.
“Shabab Al Ahli are full of stars and able to compensate for his absence, despite the importance of Diop and his offensive ability,” said the Dutchman.
As for his own team, he confirmed that everyone is ready and available to play, with no significant absences.
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.