A pulsating six-goal thriller could be the catalyst that finally sparks the Cesare Prandelii era into life at Al Nasr, but the sheen has well and truly come off Al Jazira’s Arabian Gulf League title success.
It’s difficult to put a finger on what’s gone wrong in the four months that have passed since Jazira’s epic title triumph – Henk ten Cate’s side seemed like they were only going to get stronger after a strong summer recruitment drive that yielded former Real Madrid central midfield tyro Lassana Diarra.
The worrying thing for Pride of Abu Dhabi fans is that for the injection of quality Diarra, Sardor Rashidov, Romarinho and Ahmed Khalil was supposed to provide – the base hunger and desire that carried a youthful and perceived weak team to the title has evaporated.
Two of Nasr’s four goals at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium last night came after Fawaz Awana’s dismissal – the former Bani Yas midfielder deservedly seeing yellow for a second time in 14 minutes after hacking down promising young Jazira full-back Salem Al Eedi.
That should have given the home side the impetus to push on and punish the visitors. Instead it was Prandelli’s men – led by an inspired Wanderley – that scored the next goal.
Jazira – despite having the best part of an hour to find a way to win – looked toothless and shorn of ideas, despite a wealth of creative, attacking talent at their disposal.
The one crumb of comfort for them was Ali Mabkhout’s initial equaliser – it was his 102nd AGL goal, making him the leading scorer in the professional era.
A breathless opening 45 minutes kicked into gear when Ali Khaseif watched helplessly as he parried Marcelo Cirino’s dangerous low cross only for it to cannon off Musallem Fayez, under pressure from Wanderley, and into the net.
The former Sharjah man then side-footed former Jazira playmaker Abdelaziz Barrada’s inch perfect cross against the bar as the Blue Wave cascaded forward.
That miss proved costly when Mabkhout calmly slotted in on 12 minutes following impressive youngster Salem Al Eedi’s insightful throughball.
Normal service then seemingly resumed when Fares Juma ghosted in to power Khalfan Mubarak’s corner in via a back post header.
But the visitors levelled less than a minute later when Wanderley lost Juma and assuredly beat Khaseif.
Then came Awana’s ill-timed tackle and dismissal – yet wonderful Wanderley put Nasr back in front when his powerful header from a free-kick was too hot to handle for Khaseif, who did well to tip it onto the post but the linesman deemed he did not prevent it from crossing the line.
Despite being a man to the good, Jazira looked toothless and clueless in attack as they struggled to capitalise on the extra man.
Romarinho and Rashidov – the latter introduced at the break – struggled to have an influence. But another replacement certainly didn’t. Little seemed on when a hopeful punt was sent up to Wanderley, but he patiently waited and then swept a low cross into the box and Fayez failed to spot the run of substitute Rashed Omer – on the field a mere 30 seconds – who swept home to make it 4-2.
The onslaught from Jazira failed to materialise. Mabkhout calmly collected a rebound after Ahmed Shambieh had parried Mbark Boussoufa’s stinging shot but somehow he put his effort wide when a goal would have made for a grandstand finish.
Instead, Jazira’s misery was compounded when substitute Al Otaiba was red carded in stoppage time for barging over another replacement, Jassim Yaqoob.
Mohamed Ahmed admits he is enjoying his newfound role as a central defender for Al Ain and insists he will carry on in that position for as long as he is required.
The UAE international, 28, has featured at the heart of the Boss’ defence as opposed to his usual right-back role in the early stages of the Arabian Gulf League season.
And, having endured a nightmarish 2016/17 campaign ravaged by injury, Ahmed is just happy to be back playing regularly.
“Being injured was difficult but I am just thankful I have been able to return to the team and be a core member again,” said Ahmed, the former Al Shabab defender.
“They were difficult conditions like many other players have faced during periods of injury, but personally I always looked forward to getting back to competition and to once again show my best.”
The Dubai-born defender has won 50 caps for the Whites since his 2011 debut, most of which have been played while at Al Ain, whom he joined in 2012.
Ahmed returned to the Boss first team in a 3-2 home win against Al Wahda in April – a full eight months after he had last featured for the Garden City side following a knee injury suffered in August against Lokomotiv Tashkent in the 2016 AFC Champions League.
Now fully on the mend, Ahmed has featured at centre-back for Zoran Mamic’s side in the first two games of the AGL season – a 2-2 draw with Al Wasl on opening night and a 3-0 triumph over Hatta last week – in the absence of international colleagues Ismail Ahmed and Muhanad Salem.
Salem will return for the visit of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai tomorrow but Ahmed is still working his way back to full fitness, meaning Ahmed is likely to once again feature at centre-back, with Salem.
“Any assignments that the coach gives me enhances my understanding of the game and whether I play in the center or side of defence, I just hope to contribute to a good team performance,” said Ahmed.
“I am more committed to my defensive duties now, unlike at right-back when I linked in with offensive tasks and personally I look forward to providing the best performance for success for me, the team and the club’s loyal fans.”
Tomorrow’s opponents will provide some sense of nostaligia for Ahmed. His former side Shabab merged with fellow AGL giants Al Ahli in the summer, as well as Dubai CSC, to form the new Shabab Al Ahli.
But rather than focus on the demise of his former side, Ahmed is focused only on Al Ain’s future.
He said: “I do not think about it from the integration perspective as much as we focus on going out against an opponent, looking to win.”
Shabab Al Ahli coach Cosmin Olaroiu returns to the city where he enjoyed so much success, leading the Boss to back-to-back AGL titles in 2011/12 and 2012/13 before defecting to the Red Knights.
And Ahmed said there will be no sympathy for his former manager once the whistle blows.
“When we enter any football match I do not think about the faces or certain names as much as we focus on showing the fighting spirit and achieving a strong result,” he added.
Laurentiu Reghecampf has a warning for the rest of the Arabian Gulf League – Al Wahda are going to get better.
That’s pretty ominous considering the Clarets roared to the top of the maiden table of the season after rocketing in five goals in a 5-0 demolition of Dibba Al Fujairah on the opening weekend of the 2017/18 season.
Veteran talisman Sebastian Tagliabue netted yet another hat-trick for Wahda, while Hungary captain Balazs Dzsudzsak laid on two assists for Khalid Bawazir and Mohamed Al Shehhi in the rout – although Romanian Reghecampf felt it could have been more.
“The team could have added more goals compared to the opportunities created by the players,” said the former Al Hilal and Steaua Bucharest coach.
“We have a distinguished group of players who are able to make a difference against any competitor.
“We are in a good position but we have to focus and continue to work hard during the coming period, to raise the overall level of the team and wait for our best level.
“The technical staff is working on a daily basis in training to develop the mental abilities of the players to deal with the atmosphere associated with each game, and you will see the level of the team will rise and reap the fruits of the efforts made during the coming games.”
Reghecampf, who replaced Mexican Javier Aguirre in the summer after two trophy-laden spells at Al Nahyan Stadium, singled out youngsters Mohamed Al Akbari and goalkeeper Mohamed Al Shamsi for praise – the latter making his AGL debut for the Clarets, aged just 20.
“Mohammed Al Akbari showed a high level of skill in the performance and is still at a young age,” he said.
“He needs to gain more experience that will enable him to become one of the best young players in the league.
“Mohamed Al Shamsi is a young goalkeeper but he has provided a good level of performance and dealt well with the attempts on goal from Dibba.
“He has the potential to be among the best goalkeepers in the league, provided he continues to work in training to raise his level and gain more experience.”