Al Nasr’s startling resurgence since January’s decision to rehire Ivan Jovanovic will face a stern test on Friday night when they travel to neighbours Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club for the Arabian Gulf League’s resumption after the international break.
The Blue Wave have won all six top-flight matches under the care of the Serbian – who claimed three major trophies from June 2013-October 2016 – to gate-crash the top three and potential qualification to the 2019 AFC Champions League. With only a trio of fixtures left and sinking rivals Al Wasl without a win in five top-flight fixtures, a huge advantage could be gained with victory at Rashid Stadium.
But their next opponents have won their last two matches as ex-UAE tactician Mahdi Ali begins to assert some consistency into a tumultuous inaugural campaign and should welcome back prolific Senegalese centre forward Makhete Diop after injury.
“I respect Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club,” said Jovanovic. “Always, the derby against them is very strong and exciting.
“Our team is always looking for a win and we will not stop until the final whistle. Teams with consecutive victories are the most affected by breaks in the league.”
Meanwhile, champions-elect Al Ain are immediately thrust back into action after their continental exploits when they welcome Dibba Al Fujairah.
A pair of first-half penalties from Sweden No9 Marcus Berg on Monday earned an invaluable 2-1 victory to keep hopes of progression into the 2018 ACL’s knockouts alive. They will now look to protect a four-point domestic advantage against a Dibba side who are virtually assured of safety.
This is not the case for Hatta and Al Dhafra, with bottom set to host third bottom at Hamdan bin Rashid Stadium.
Boss Henk ten Cate has revealed he was “convinced” about Al Jazira’s sterling progression to the 2018 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 from the moment he knew that a full-strength squad could finally be selected for Tuesday’s trip to Qatar’s Al Gharafa.
Exiled UAE striker Ali Mabkhout’s completion of a brace with the last kick at Thani bin Jassim Stadium secured an engrossing 3-2 triumph that guaranteed entry to the knockouts for the first time since 2014. This penultimate Group A-clash featured welcome returns by the likes of the two-goal match-winner, influential centre midfielder Mohamed Jamal and UAE forward Ahmed Al Attas.
“To be honest, yes, I did,” said Ten Cate when quizzed about whether he expected the result to send them through via a superior head-to-head record versus Gharafa. “The team were convinced, too.”
“You need to know that since September or November, this is the first time we have a full squad of players. Some of them just came back from injury.
“We felt in the past few days before the match that the players wanted to come here and achieve something.
“Anything can happen in football, and after the 20th minute I thought it wouldn’t be easy.
“It was vital that we make it through to the last 16, both for the club and the UAE.”
To top the section after April 17’s decider, they’ll need to better fellow qualifiers Al Ahli Jeddah’s 2-1 triumph in February’s reverse meeting.
Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic has brushed aside the uproar caused by his side controversially earning three first-half penalties and declared “history will only recognise the winner” after a pivotal 2-1 triumph against enraged Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the 2018 AFC Champions League.
A dramatic opening period at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium saw exiled UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman miss from 12 yards and prolific Sweden centre forward Marcus Berg decisively convert twice.
Monday’s decisions from Chinese referee Ma Ning helped eliminate the 2017 edition’s runners-up. It also ended a four-match spell of draws in this year’s competition for the Boss, who must now avoid defeat at Qatar’s Al Rayyan to progress into the knockouts when Group D winds up on April 16.
“I have not seen the match on TV yet,” said Mamic, whose troops have earned five penalties in the opening stage.
“Still, from my position I saw that they were correct and I believe that it is the referee who was so close and saw the violation as a result of tackling my players. At any rate, if there are mistakes, they are still part of football.
“History will only recognise the winner and tomorrow nobody will mention the referee.”
A forced observer at the Hazza was new Egypt cap Hussein El Shahat. The 26-year-old watched on from behind the dugout after an ankle knock incurred during March 17’s 3-2 victory at Al Jazira in the Arabian Gulf League was aggravated on international duty.
Mamic remained hopeful the champions elect will be able to count on the midfielder for Friday’s resumption against lowly Dibba Al Fujairah.
He said: “We hope to have him on-board in the coming match against Dibba. El Shahat had a kick on his ankle during our recent match against Al Jazira and after joining Egypt’s national team, he was hit again in the same place. Currently, he’s enrolled in a rehabilitation programme.”
Al Ain boast a four-point lead over Al Wahda, with just three games left.