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.
GROUP A: LOKOMOTIV 2-0 AL AHLI
Lokomotiv midfielder Salamat Kutibaev scored the second fastest goal in AFC Champions League history as the Uzbek side picked up their first points of the 2017 competition after a 2-0 win over visitors Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates at Lokomotiv Stadium in Group A on Monday.
After suffering a 1-0 reversal to Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun on Matchday One, 2016 quarter-finalists Lokomotiv shook off the opening day defeat in record time as Kutibaev headed home Marat Bikmaev’s left-wing cross in under 18 seconds of the match – an achievement bettered only by Sebastian Soria’s nine-second opener for Lekhwiya, also in Tashkent, against Pakhtakor at the 2013 edition.
Shell-shocked, the 2015 runners-up did respond and were kept out by some excellent goalkeeping by Ignatiy Nesterov but just three minutes before the hour mark Bikmaev went from provider to goalscorer and added Lokomotiv’s all-important second, slotting past visiting custodian Majed Naser after Sardor Mirzayev’s assist.
GROUP B: AL FATEH 2-2 LEKHWIYA
A stunning 86th minute Nam Tae-hee equaliser for Lekhwiya saw Al Fateh’s winless run in the AFC Champions League stretch to eight games after an exciting 2-2 draw at Prince Abdullah Bin Jalawi Stadium in Group B on Monday.
Youssef El Arabi had netted a third continental goal in two games to open the scoring for the Qatari visitors after his 19th minute header from Youssef Msakni’s cross, but Nathan Junior’s successfully converted penalty kick saw the sides go into the break all-square.
Al Fateh defender Sayyaf Al Bishi then took full advantage of ‘keeper Amine Lecomte’s failure to deal with Ahmed Al Mubarak’s corner to stab home from close range.
With time running out, it looked like the Saudi Arabian club would finally end a run of seven games without a win in Asia's premier club competition, but it was not to be as Korea Republic midfielder Nam struck a sweet volley from just inside the area that arced over Abdullah Al Oaisher and into the top corner.
GROUP A: ESTEGHLAL 3-0 AL TAAWOUN
Two-time Asian champions Esteghlal of the Islamic Republic of Iran eased to their first win of the 2017 AFC Champions League after securing a comfortable 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia’s Al Taawoun in Group A on Monday.
Esteghlal took the lead inside a minute at Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex after the Al Taawoun backline failed to clear a long throw-in from the right and the ball eventually fell kindly to Kaveh Rezaei, who finished through a crowd of defenders from eight yards.
The Iranian side doubled their advantage with 20 minutes remaining when Al Taawoun again were unable to clear their lines following a long free-kick into the box and, after Jaber Ansari mishit his attempt, Mohsen Karimi was on hand to finish from six yards.
Omid Ebrahimi’s accurate delivery was then headed home by Brazilian defender Leandro Padovani with two minutes remaining to leave all four teams in the table on three points after Uzbekistan's Lokomotiv defeated Al Ahli of the United Arab Emirates 2-0 in Monday’s other Group A fixture.
GROUP B: AL JAZIRA 0-1 ESTEGHAL KHOUZESTAN
Aloys Nong’s early strike ensured debutants Esteghlal Khouzestan maintained their 100% record in the AFC Champions League following a 1-0 win over Al Jazira in Group B on Monday night..
The Iranian visitors opened the scoring in the second minute at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium when Peyman Shirzadi’s throw-in from the left was flicked on by Arash Afshin to Hassan Beit Saeid, who laid the ball into the path of Nong to coolly slot home with the outside of his right boot.
Beit Saeid then struck the crossbar with a wonderful free-kick as the hour approached, before Musallem Fayez headed against the woodwork down the other end but Esteghlal Khouzestan held out to condemn the Emiratis to a second successive defeat and move two points clear at the top of the standings after Monday’s other Group B encounter between Al Fateh and Lekhwiya ended 2-2.