A crack has emerged in Al Jazira’s imperious visage.
Saturday’s defiant, late rally from champions Al Ahli saw them inflict just a second defeat of the Arabian Gulf League season, in the process checking the Pride of Abu Dhabi’s procession to a first title since 2010/11. With last term’s runners-up and the beaten 2016 AFC Champions League finalists Al Ain visiting Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday night, a defining moment has arrived.
A potential 10-point advantage over the Boss and Al Wasl has been cut to Ahli being just six in arrears, with six games to play. The trio are now in punching range, a midweek blow putting them in the position to deliver a fatal strike.
Will the characteristic frailties associated with the division’s great entertainers re-emerge which coach Henk ten Cate has so expertly suppressed during his year in charge, or was the reversal in Dubai just a blip on the path to memorable success?
This current Jazira squad have wildly defied expectations to breeze through 2016/17. Both recent history, their immediate opponents’ failings and a fearsome attack should mean they have enough to weather the storm.
Since the UAE’s top flight turned professional in 2008/09, genuine fights at the top of the table have not emerged. The average winning margin at the end of the season between first and second is a chasmic 11 points.
Jazira themselves were involved in the narrowest scrap, capital rivals Al Wahda ending up seven points ahead in 2009/10.
This points to the leaders’ advantage growing, rather than being reined in.
Jazira also currently top the scoring charts, their 54 goals producing a healthy advantage of nine over Wasl.
This has been a determinant of success in the same era, five out of the eight champions boasting the most-lethal attack.
This cutting edge was glaring when Jazira and Al Ain last met. The toothless Boss were ruthlessly picked apart on the counter-attack during January’s 3-1 win; Ailton Almeida, Ali Mabkhout and Leonardo all getting on the scoresheet.
With Saudi Arabia flop Nasser Al Shamrani doing precious little to impress since his inauspicious debut on that night, it’s doubtful Al Ain have the firing power to make it successive losses on Wednesday.
This situation is in stark contrast to the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
Mabkhout continues to emerge as a striker of real renown in Asia. He currently tops the scoring charts on 24, three ahead of Wasl’s Fabio De Lima.
For Al Ain, Brazilian forward Caio with 11 is their most prolific. The supreme creative powers of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman are made defunct by the profligacy which otherwise surrounds him.
It is important to note how far Ten Cate has taken his club.
He inherited a relegation-threatened rabble from apathetic predecessor Abel Braga, a man out of steps with how far the UAE game had developed since his trophy-laden three-year spell ended upon the club’s last AGL triumph.
Strong buys have been made. Right-back Mohammed Fawzi has added poise, Morocco playmaker Mbark Boussoufa keeps the team ticking along and Brazilian forward Leonardo looks the pick.
But Ten Cate’s greatest feat has been engendering a team spirit which had degenerated under Braga.
This belief should ensure they hold their nerve and get the requisite result against Al Ain.