There were incredible displays and stunning moments of genius at both ends of the table in the Arabian Gulf League this weekend.
Here are the standout performers:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Sebastian Tagliabue (Al Wahda)
In the nine years of professionalism in the UAE, it has been lucky to be graced by several supreme strikers.
Ricardo Oliveira, Asamoah Gyan and Grafite are just three men who have left an indelible mark on the country and competition. But the king of them all is still plying his trade here.
Tagliabue’s 30-minute hat-trick in the 3-2 triumph at Sharjah was utterly characteristic. All three were predatory efforts as Wahda kept the pressure up on leaders Al Ain.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Fabio De Lima (Al Wasl)
Is there anything the fabulously talented Brazilian forward can’t do?
In a season that has contained 19 strikes in the AGL, his effort at promoted Ajman will live long.
The 24-year-old got the ball under pressure on the right-hand side of the penalty box. He then twisted, turned and flicked the ball before launching an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
This goal inspired the Cheetahs to a first league win in six games. Too late to salvage their top-three hopes?
COACH OF THE WEEK
Nizar Mahrous (Emirates Club)
The Syrian must have had a wry smile after this round.
Cut loose by Hatta early last month, he gratefully accepted the emergency call from fellow strugglers Emirates Club during the international break.
Upon the return to action, doomed Hatta recorded a fifth loss in succession. But the Falcons flew high, Sebastian Saez plundering a late, enlivening winner against Al Jazira.
Hope abounds that the new man can engender the surge required to secure a sixth-successive top-flight campaign.
BATTLE AT THE BOTTOM
With the title all-but sewn up, attention now slides towards the scrap against relegation.
A play-off system is expected to be applied to allow for the return to a 14-team competition for 2018/19. The bottom two will automatically drop to First Division League, while the current ninth and 10th-placed go into the lottery of a play-off versus the FDL’s third and fourth-placed finishers,
The pressure will be at maximum next time out when second-bottom Emirates Club play 10th-placed Dibba Al Fujairah in a fortnight’s time.
‘Tigali’, 33, scored three times within 30 first-half-minutes during a 3-2 win at Sharjah on Saturday that extended the title fight with champions-elect Al Ain into the penultimate round. This was his third treble during his last seven matches in all competitions, a run that includes a phenomenal total of 13 goals.
It also caused him to move within four strikes of former Al Ain and Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan’s 110-goal mark as the leading foreign scorer of the professional era.
“I was sure we would win,” said Reghecampf post-match. “Despite the absences, the most important thing for me is that we keep our level. In regards to the rest of the season, now we must focus perfectly on the game against Al Jazira in the President’s Cup on Thursday.
“I also must say, Tigali continues to prove to everyone that he is the best striker.”
Tagliabue has exceeded even the wildest expectations since he was snapped up from Saudi Arabia’s Al Shabab Riyadh in June 2013.
His efforts at the weekend saw him join Al Wasl’s Fabio De Lima as joint-leading marksman in the 2017/18 top flight on 19 goals.
تكريم لاعب #الوحدة تيجالي بعد تسجيله ثلاثية🔥 "هاتريك" في مباراة #الشارقة_الوحدة ضمن مبادرة تكريم الهدافين#دوري_الخليج_العربي— Arabian Gulf League (@AGLeague) April 7, 2018
Al Wahda's Tagliabue receives Goal Scorer Initiative award after scoring a 🔥hattrick in 3-2 win over Sharjah FC #AGLeague 👏💪 pic.twitter.com/4mzAX8IvTv
These came from a wide-open first half at Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium as Sharjah showed no reticence and twice took the lead against second-placed opponents.
Their boss Abdulaziz Al Anbari was only disappointed his charges hadn’t heeded any warnings.
He said: “We talked to the players about the danger of Tigali. But we should not forget what the players did in previous games, we encourage them and trust that they will do their best in the coming games.
“The early goal contributed to the game being very open, especially as Wahda entered the match knowing they must win to keep competing for the title.
“The good thing is we scored two goals and the sad thing is that we conceded three times.”
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN BEGINS
The 2017/18 AGL title could be decided on Saturday, April 21, after organisers announced the second-to-last round of matches.
Both leaders Al Ain and second-placed Wahda will take to the field at 18:00. A win for the former at Al Nasr will guarantee a first top-flight trophy since 2014/15 because of their four-point advantage, no matter what the Clarets do when they play promoted Ajman.
Fujairah’s quest to earn a return to the Arabian Gulf League has more than one World Cup winner behind it.
Standing beside inimitable Argentina icon Diego Maradona is assistant Luis Islas. The 52-year-old had no hesitation to follow El Pibe de Oro – The Golden Boy – when he shocked the sport last May by ending a five-year spell away from the dugout in the UAE’s First Division League.
Fast forward 10 months and the undefeated Wolves are locked on 40 points in a head-to-head battle with Ittihad Kalba for the second automatic promotion spot. It is a calling Islas takes just as seriously as their conquest of World Cup 1986 together, or when the 30-times-capped goalkeeper started all four games at the 1994 edition.
But his ambitions don’t start and end with Maradona.
This is the first time the duo have come together in their post-playing careers. The No2 has been a No1 since 2006 at clubs such as Bolivia’s Aurora (twice), plus Almagro, Central Norte, Racing de Cordoba, Atletico Colegiales and Deportivo Espanol in his homeland.
There is gratitude for what Fujairah have offered both Islas and his family. Although, a desire to be entrenador – head coach – burns bright in this new country embraced by them all.
“Working with Diego is a pleasure,” he tells Sport360°. “But we know this is football and there is only a few weeks left until the contract is over.
“This time, I have the capacity and ability to work alone. I feel confident I’d do a great job. In the UAE, football is about looking for results – every week you have to win. I like that challenge.
“I am happy in Fujairah and I thank them for the opportunity. My family is also happy, too. If it is not at Fujairah, I am interested in all the other teams.”
The bond between the pair was forged on the baking training pitches of Mexico. More than 30 years ago, a promising shot stopper only just out of his teens got taken under the wing of the globe’s greatest footballer.
“As a player at World Cup 1986, when we won it, Diego used to finish the training and every day we would stay together and practice free-kicks,” Islas reveals.
“Diego is five-years older than me. I was only 20 and Diego was 25. As a player, I conceded very few free-kicks. This is because as a player, I trained with Diego.
“I have known him for more than 30 years. I played two World Cups with Diego and we are always in touch. I was coaching in Argentina and my contract was over. When I received the phone call, I had no doubts and said ‘yes’.
“We have many games together, been at World Cups but now we give everything to get the objective at Fujairah – to gain promotion to the Arabian Gulf League.”
It is important to detach Islas from his lionised colleague.
Further sources of inspiration as a head coach range from one of Mexico’s greatest trophy hoarders to a pair of World Cup winners, plus his privileged viewpoint.
Islas says: “When I was a football player, I was very lucky to work with great coaches who also went to the national team. Enrique Meza coached Mexico and Toluca. I was coached by Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, champions of the World Cup.
“I also played for 27 years. Every game of my life as a goalkeeper I always had the best view.”
In the UAE’s second tier, Bani Yas are already guaranteed an instant comeback to the AGL.
The remaining sides are likely scrapping for one automatic berth and two play-off spots, ahead of official confirmation of the competition’s return to 14 sides for 2018/19.
The small matter looms of Thursday’s tie with AGL champions-elect Al Ain in the President’s Cup quarter-finals.
Islas has embraced the high-profile contest at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s stadium Al Aweer. But just like his own personal coaching ambitions, focus is not straying from the main mission – getting Fujairah back to the big time for the first time since 2015/16.
He says: “The responsibility of the game against Al Ain is big. The team will give 100 per cent. We go to win and we want to make the next step. But we have two more very important games in the league, as well.”