Former Spain and Real Madrid centre forward Alvaro Negredo struck on Sunday for the sixth-successive Arabian Gulf League match to continue Al Nasr’s revival with a deserved 2-0 win against Al Dhafra.
Negredo, 33, arrived in Dubai from Turkey’s Besiktas this summer with a huge reputation after spells at clubs that also include Sevilla and Manchester City. He has quickly recovered from a penalty miss on debut against champions Al Ain to rattle in nine goals during the next seven matches in all competitions.
This exceptional spell continued apace at Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium. A long ball from ex-France midfielder Yohan Cabaye picked out Negredo on 28 minutes, who did the rest with a slotted finish into the bottom corner.
The Blue Wave’s cruise towards victory continued two minutes before the break when Khalid Ali Aldarmaki unluckily deflected a cross into his own goal.
Victory saw Ivan Jovanovic’s men move further away from the relegation spots. The Serbian’s troops lost their opening four fixtures, but are now undefeated in five.
Dhafra, however, sit one place above the drop zone after they recorded a second-successive loss.
Meanwhile, holders Al Ain struck in both halves to earn a 2-0 triumph against promoted Bani Yas and avert talk of a crisis.
The Boss had lost two of their last three fixtures – at home to rivals Al Jazira and Sharjah. There were no worries of a repeat at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium as UAE prospect Rayan Yaslam converted from close range and Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat struck from distance.
They now only trail leaders Sharjah by two points after their 2-2 draw with yo-yo side Ittihad Kalba.
The visitors to Khaled bin Mohamed Stadium twice fought back to claim a share of the spoils. Igor Coronado and Saif Rashid scored for Sharjah, with Myke Ramos and Balazs Dzsudzsak responding.
Coach Zoran Mamic is convinced Arabian Gulf League champions Al Ain are not “in a bad period”, despite looking to end a shock losing spell against promoted Bani Yas on Sunday.
The top fight and President’s Cup double winners were turned over by title rivals Al Jazira and Sharjah during two of their last three matches. This has led to talk of a crisis at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
“I’m not happy with the outcome in the last round, for sure, because no one likes to lose,” Mamic said. “We want to be stronger, more focused and more effective than in our last game on the pitch.
“Bani Yas is a very good team and has made strong performances against strong teams such as Al Jazira and Al Wasl.
“I do not think that we are currently in a bad period, but we have lost two games and at the moment of loss we need real support.”
Meanwhile, surprise leaders Sharjah are fully aware of the danger posed by yo-yo club Ittihad Kalba’s imposing foreign legion.
Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak and Ivory Coast forward Giovanni Sio have both impressed since their summer arrivals.
“This season, there are no easy teams and most of the clubs have succeeded in their contracts with foreigners,” said Sharjah boss Abdulaziz Al Anbari, whose charges boast a four-point cushion to Jazira.
Al Nasr tactician Ivan Jovanovic is confident 2018/19 can still bring joy to his side.
Alvaro Negredo and Yohan Cabaye’s Blue Wave are unbeaten in their last four games, after losing their opening quartet.
“There are still 18 games remaining in the league, and the opportunity is still available for the team to restore its normal position,” said Jovanovic ahead of the visit of improving Al Dhafra.
Al Ain suffered a second defeat in three games as early Arabian Gulf League pacesetters Sharjah opened up a four-point gap at the top of the table to continue their soaring start to the 2018/19 campaign.
Al Jazira and Al Wahda failed to capitalise on the Boss’ 2-1 home defeat as they could only draw. Al Wasl, meanwhile, won for the first time in seven games.
Here we look at three talking points from round eight.
ARE SHARJAH THE REAL DEAL?
OK, so when do we actually start sipping the Sharjah kool-aid and not outrightly dismiss them from being an AGL title contender, claiming their early-season form is merely a lucky start?
After beating the champions on their home patch seems like an apt place to start. We’re totally on the bandwagon now after last season’s domestic kings were toppled by, well, the King.
Al Ain’s second defeat of the season and Al Jazira’s concession of a late equaliser in a pulsating 3-3 draw at Dibba Al Fujairah has resulted in a four-point gap opening up at the top of the table to Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s men, unbeaten with six wins from eight.
The King are the third-highest scorers in the AGL with 21 with Brazilian hitman Welliton notching his ninth league goal of the season to open the scoring at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
They’ve started brightly but going to the home of the champions was the real litmus test – and they passed with flying colours. Igor Coronado’s penalty made it 2-0 and took him to six goals for the season. And the visitors held on for the points when they could have crumbled when Marcus Berg started the Boss fightback with 23 minutes remaining.
There’s been so much disappointment in recent years – Sharjah have finished sixth, ninth, 11th, 12th and seventh since their reintroduction to the top-flight in 2012/13.
The last of their five titles (they are the fourth most successful team in the nation’s history) came nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s time to start believing.
PRIDE OF ABU DHABI SLIP OFF THE PACE
Jazira have enjoyed a similarly fast start to the season, but have slipped off the rails in recent weeks – coincidentally ever since they recorded a victory over Sharjah two weeks ago.
Alright, that was an Arabian Gulf Cup tie where Sharjah’s foreign stars were rested, but the Pride of Abu Dhabi followed that up perfectly by laying the blueprint for Sharjah to imitate when they went to the Garden City and beat Al Ain 2-1 in the league.
It was a maiden defeat of the season inflicted on the Boss and suggested that after a woeful title defence a year ago, Jazira’s early season form wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Yet, since then, Marcel Keizer’s charges have lost their way a little. A Leonardo leveller was required to rescue a point at home against promoted Ittihad Kalba a week ago before Driss Fettouhi’s 94th minute equaliser saw the Fishermen pluck out a point on Thursday evening.
There’s hardly any need to panic – Jazira are second, a mere four points adrift of the King with barely a quarter of the season gone. They’re one of two remaining teams unbeaten (the other being Sharjah) while Ali Mabkhout – who scored his seventh and eighth goals of the season on Thursday – and Khalfan Mubarak are combining to devastating effect.
But they will be disappointed they weren’t able to capitalise on Al Ain’s defeat, the Boss’ second in three games. Jazira will be wary of how a slip can quickly turn into a slump in the AGL. And they will not want their title challenge to peter out into a procession for the King.
Although you hardly expect the likes of promoted Fujairah, Bani Yas and Kalba, as well as Ajman or even Shabab Al Ahli or Al Wasl to mount a serious title challenge, there is a hyper competitive nature to the 2018/19 AGL.
A mere 10 points separate the league’s top 10 – in fact just 12 points separate the first 12 teams.
Sharjah’s victory over Al Ain saw daylight appear at the top of the table properly for the first time this season. And while those two teams, as well as Abu Dhabi duo Jazira and Al Wahda, are likely to be the four main protagonists for the championship come the end of the season, there is much to be said about the jostling currently taking place between teams.
Shabab Al Ahli in fifth are seemingly emerging from the mid-table mediocrity that obscured their merger last season under the guidance of Argentine tactician Rodolfo Arruabarrena.
The form of promoted trio Fujairah, Bani Yas and Kalba has been a joy to behold. From 24 games between them, there have been just nine defeats, with all three finding the net 15 times (joint fifth) and the Sky Blues possessing the league’s third most miserly defence (14 goals conceded).
With Alvaro Negredo and Yohan Cabaye leading a star-studded Al Nasr side on the rise, you’d also expect them to significantly improve on their current 12th place (after beginning with four defeats they are unbeaten in their last four).
Bottom two Dibba and Emirates Club should be very worried.