Ah Ahli’s recent recovery faltered as they were deservedly beaten 1-0 by Dubai neighbours Al Shabab.
The Red Knights, unbeaten in four, including three wins, had been rediscovering something akin to the form that saw them surge to the Arabian Gulf League title last season before this tepid defeat.
After a dismal opening to their title defence, wins against Ittihad Kalba, Al Wahda and Sharjah, as well as a draw against Bani Yas, saw them register three clean sheets and climb to seventh and within striking distance of the league’s leading lights.
Nasser Masood’s cool finish at the Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium, however, gave Shabab a much needed win and re-ignited their own title bid.
Shabab had won five straight before losing to Jazira on December 14.
Since then though they had won just once in four games, and fell to back to back defeats against Al Ain.
This win will have given Caio Júnior’s side a massive shot in the arm though, the three points keeping them in fourth and moving them level on points with Al Wahda, four points behind leaders Jazira.
Masood’s matchwinner lit up an otherwise turgid game.
The goal owed much to the graft of Dawood Ali and the craft of the returning Henrique Luvannor.
Shabab broke forward following an Ahli attack and Ali, surging into Red Knights’ territory, spotted the Moldovan in space.
He kept his cool as cover arrived to slip in Masood who in turn was calmness personified as he slid home the opener past UAE stopper Majed Nasser in the 73rd minute.
It’s back to the drawing board for Ahli manager Cosmin Olariou, who cut a disgruntled figure on the sidelines throughout.
In stark contrast, Shabab coach Junior resembled a cartoon character, celebrating fiercely upon Masood’s crucial strike.
Up until the goal there had been very little in the way of quality for either set of fans to enjoy.
Home defender Mohammed Ali Ayed had the first real chance of the game and should have at least found the target with his header from a corner off target.
Edgar Bruno Da Silva blazed over and then glanced a header wide, while Hassan Ibrahim’s errant snap shot provided Shabab with their best chance of the first half.
The visitors had to wait until just before half time for their first chance of note, with Carlos Munoz’s acrobatic effort going just wide.
It was more of the same after the interval, with the hosts marginally the better side. Da Silva had the ball in the net in the 65th minute but his header was correctly ruled out for offside.
Former Liverpool wideman Ossama Assaidi brought a save out of Salem Abdulla before Masood’s strike broke the deadlock, and the former Anfield man blazed a shot just wide soon after as Ahli pressed for an equaliser.
Carlos Villanueva’s long ball set Da Silva away, Nasser coming out to bravely block at the feet of the Brazilian, with Luvannor balooning over the loose ball as the score remained 1-0.
Arabian Gulf League rivals Bani Yas head a quartet of clubs looking to take advantage of captain Luis Jimenez’s growing discontent at Al Ahli.
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Jimenez, 30, has excelled since joining the Red Knights in August 2011. But the dismantling of last season’s treble winners has forced the attacking midfielder to consider his future, an exit before the close of the winter transfer window on February 12 now possible.
The Sky Blues have been joined by Argentine Primera Division holders Racing Club, Chinese Super League runners-up Beijing Guoan and Chilean Primera Division outfit Colo-Colo in registering interest with club and player.
Jimenez has less than six months remaining on the four-year deal inked on arrival, a €1-2 million (Dh4.2m-8.3m) fee needed to tempt Ahli into countenancing a sale.
The 26-times capped Chile international first grew unsettled when Hugo Viana was jettisoned to Al Wasl in the summer, this feeling of unhappiness growing upon close friend Grafite’s sale to Qatar’s Al Sadd last Monday.
“Grafite and Jimenez’s family used to socialise together when they were in Dubai and to see him leave has upset him,” a source close to the player said.
“A move away is now possible in the next week, with several clubs already expressing interest in him. Offers have been made to Ahli, but none have been accepted yet – let’s see what happens.”
Jimenez would get the chance to play in the Copa Libertadores – South America’s leading club competition – with Racing Club.
A move back to his homeland at Colo-Colo would now have to wait until the summer as the market is closed there unless he was released as a free agent, but the opportunity excites as it would open up the possibility of representing the national side for the first time in four years.
Jimenez remains highly-valued in the continent he currently plays in, his joint Chilean-Palestinian nationality meaning he can fill an Asian player slot in the four-man foreign quota.
Bani Yas are still considering whether to dispense with injury-plagued current incumbent Kim Jung-Woo, of South Korea.
The extent of the ex-Internazionale star’s disquiet was revealed when speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s 2-0 top-flight win against Sharjah, a match in which new non-Emiratis Oussama Assaidi and Everton Ribeiro debuted.
“I am happy here, but you never know what can happen in football,” Jimenez said. “Grafite is one of my best friends, we arrived together here [in 2011].
“We met all the time outside of training, our families are friends. After three years and six months, he leaves us.
“In football it is very hard to find people like Grafite. This happened with Hugo Viana, as well.
“You can always find good players but finding good people in football is very difficult. This is football.”
Time and tide, sadly, wait for no man. Grafite has learnt this lesson during the winter transfer window as three-and-a-half years of incredible service to Al Ahli were cast aside.
The decision to dump the 35-year-old on Qatar’s Al Sadd on Monday seems ruthless but was perhaps understandable. A revolution is under way at Rashid Stadium to stem the rapid decline exhibited by the treble winners this term.
It has been a honor to represent Al Ahli as a player and as captain. I have cherished every second of it!! pic.twitter.com/4HfekjFWxn
— Grafite (@Graffa23) February 4, 2015
Morocco winger Oussama Assaidi and Brazil playmaker Everton Ribeiro are ambitious moves to revive a troubled campaign.
Such relentless desire for progress saw ‘Graffa’ – whose name was chanted with real affection from the Rashid Stadium terraces right until the end – brought to Dubai in the first place.
The Red Knights went the extra mile to see off strong competition from regional rivals Al Gharafa to bring him in from Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg, huge reward following from a man now rightly heralded as a club legend.
The four-times capped Brazl international’s legacy to Ahli is the creation of a winning and professional culture. His warm, approachable disposition hides a burning
desire to be the best.
There was no base urge for one last pay day in the Middle East. Graffa arrived in the UAE determined to leave a tangible mark, a series of tweets yesterday detailing his affection for the club he departs.
Five trophies, two Foreign Player of the Year awards plus 86 goals in 113 appearances pay testament to his extraordinary output.
Ahli were fresh off a nightmare campaign under David O’Leary when he joined, memories of the 2008/09 league title win seeming more distant than ever.
Grafite immediately lit the spark that led to last term’s zenith under serial trophy winning coach Cosmin Olaroiu.
An equalising goal in the 2011/12 Etisalat Emirates Cup – now the Arabian Gulf Cup – final saw silverware secured within a year of his arrival.
The tally was doubled the following May with a first President’s Cup triumph in five years, an eventful match for Grafite seeing him score then get sent off with 10 minutes remaining.
UAE Super Cup, now Arabian Gulf Cup Super Cup, Arabian Gulf League and Arabian Gulf Cup wins followed in a glorious 2013/14. But this was to be the peak for Graffa, age catching him and his team-mates up.
His last appearance in a Red Knights shirt was not befitting of the man.
A near-empty Rashid Stadium on January 4 played host to a pointless AGC group-stage clash against a Fujairah side with all their best players away at a training camp in Turkey.
Ahli were right to let him go, but Al Sadd have gained an outstanding professional.
Madness at Dhafra could be costly
A calm and sensible approach has gripped the AGL in recent weeks.
Al Wahda pulled out of a deal for Tim Cahill after deciding he did not fit their successful lone-striker system, while Sharjah retained excellent boss Paulo Bonamigo despite sitting a place above the drop zone.
Second-bottom Ajman gave Fetthi Al Jabal half the season before their patience, finally, snapped and he was replaced by Manuel Cajuda with an entire transfer window ahead to remodel.
Even Al Ahli’s standout pursuits of Oussama Assaidi and Everton Ribeiro were carried out with minimum fuss.
The memo to cut out the unnecessary grandstanding and drama obviously didn’t reach Al Dhafra who seem on a suicidal scramble to jeopardise their top-flight future.
The Western Knights have kept their heads above water since winning promotion for the 2012/13 season, staying up by maximising what they have.
This methodology was ignored four undefeated games into the campaign, coach Anel Karabeg remorselessly binned after a 3-3 draw against Al Jazira that should have brought praise.
Eight points were secured in nine fixtures under replacement Marin Ion before he was given the boot. A third stint at Al Dhafra Stadium for Laurent Banide began last night with victory against depleted Al Wasl.
The same crazy tinkering also applies to their foreign quota of players. They could pay a heavy price.