A favourable return to action after the winter break continued on Tuesday for unbeaten Arabian Gulf League leaders Sharjah as they mounted a dramatic late recovery job to defeat Al Dhafra 2-1 thanks to a debutant’s clincher, before champions Al Ain began life minus coach Zoran Mamic with a goalless draw with lowly Emirates Club.
The King came into Tuesday’s action buoyed by second-placed Al Jazira’s harmful 1-0 home loss to Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club 24 hours prior, upon the top flight’s resumption.
This feel-good factor, however, threatened to dissipate within the first 10 minutes at Khalid bin Mohamed Stadium when Al Wahda loanee Abdallah El Refaey planted a powerful header past goalkeeper Adel Al Hosani.
The hosts quickly laid siege to the Western Knights goal, but could not find a way through until Brazilian playmaker Igor Coronado slotted in a 78th-minute penalty kick for an eighth goal of a productive debut campaign.
This entertaining comeback was then completed in the 89th minute when Moatasem Yassin marked his top-flight bow with a decisive rebound from Brazilian striker Welliton’s shot.
This rousing finale helped secured a five-point overnight lead thanks to the Boss’ surprise misstep.
Less than a week since Mamic’s shock defection to Saudi Professional League heavyweights Al Hilal, caretaker Zeljko Sopic oversaw an agonising 0-0 stalemate with second-bottom Emirates.
A succession of chances went begging, including from new boy Ruben Ribeiro – drafted in as replacement for the sold Hussein El Shahat.
Elsewhere, four first-half goals handed Henk ten Cate a winning start as Al Wahda coach at Ittihad Kalba.
Leonardo (penalty), Sebastian Tagliabue, Sultan Al Ghaferi and Mourad Batna (penalty) all netted in a 4-2 triumph. Myke Ramos got a brace as consolation.
Al Jazira head coach Damien Hertog said he could not fault his players’ efforts despite seeing his team stutter in the title race as the Arabian Gulf League resumed on Monday.
Jazira suffered a 1-0 stoppage time loss to Shabab Al Ahli following a near two-month break, former striker Ahmed Khalil returning to haunt them as he scored in the 93rd minute at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
It was a tough result for Hertog’s side who could not convert any of their four chances on target.
“During the first half, we controlled the game and we played well in their half,” said Hertog after the game.
The result left Jazira three points adrift of leaders Sharjah, who then extended the gap to six following their 2-1 win over Al Dhafra on Tuesday.
“The game was tense and it was obvious that the first team who scored would go on and win the game. We had a good opportunity to score through Ernest Asante, but unfortunately he didn’t manage to take it this time.
“It was really frustrating for us that we conceded in stoppage time. All of my players gave 100 per cent and gave their maximum, but it wasn’t enough on the night.”
The Pride of Abu Dhabi went into the match without key players including Sebastien Siani, Khalifa Al Hammadi and Salim Al Eidi who were suspended. Mohammed Jamal and Salim Abdullah were also ruled out due to injury.
Hertog admits the absences did affect the way his side played, but the Dutchman is focused on getting back to winning ways against Fujairah next week.
He continued: “I don’t want to give excuses, but we were affected by the absence of some players and this caused a loss of harmony. We were hoping to get the three points to restart the season, but now we must focus to win the next game.”
Hertog named UAE internationals Ali Khaseif, Ali Mabkhout, Khalfan Mubarak and Fares Juma in his starting line-up following their explouts in the Asian Cup – the Whites reached the semi-finals before exiting to Qatar.
Although they could not inspire Jazira to victory, Hertog was satisfied with the quartet’s efforts.
“Playing so many games at the Asian Cup affected the players, but this is normal. They played well tonight and it has been great to have them back in training”, he added.
The Arabian Gulf League makes a welcome return following a frustratingly long break this week, with plenty at stake including a thrilling title battle set to resume.
Just three points separated the top three at the start of play on Monday as teams looks to shake off the cobwebs caused by the hosting of both the FIFA Club World Cup and Asian Cup in the Emirates in recent months.
Here are some talking points.
HOW DO BOSS MANAGE MAMIC MISERY?
Interesting times ahead for Al Ain. What can we expect of the Boss following the departure of boss Zoran Mamic to Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal?
Not only has the Croatian sought pastures new following the end of a two-year deal with the Garden City outfit, but two of the club’s stars have uprooted too. Egypt schemer Hussein El Shahat has been bizarrely sold to Al Ahly in his homeland while brilliant Brazilian winger Caio agreed to terms with Portugal powerhouses Benfica in the summer.
In the midst of a tantalising title tussle with Sharjah and Al Jazira prior to the Club World Cup and then Asian Cup taking precedence in mid-December, it will be intriguing to see how the trio manage the future after a lengthy hiatus.
But whereas Sharjah and Jazira are reconvening with their staff and players largely intact, there has been a total revamp at Al Ain and a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Former Borussia Monchengladbach defender Zeljko Sopic and Ahmed Abdullah have assumed the reins from Mamic. Can they maintain a title charge?
JITTERS AT JAZIRA
At first glance, Jazira’s slip-up against Shabab Al Ahli on Monday provides a glorious opportunity for leaders Sharjah and champions Al Ain to pick up points and open up some daylight in the title race.
Victory for the King – the only undefeated side in the AGL this season – against Al Dhafra would open up a six-point gap to the Pride of Abu Dhabi, while the Boss would put three points between themselves and the league’s leading scorers with victory at home to Emirates Club.
But with the heavy distractions of the two aforementioned tournaments decimating the fixture list for the last two months, it is anyone’s guess as to how chaotic both sides’ preparations for the resumption of the league have been.
The Boss’ plight is of course hampered further by the galling loss of Mamic.
It is not quite the pandemonium of pre-season when players’ fitness levels plummeted. A lot of them featured at the Asian Cup while others have been ticking over at their clubs; they should just require fine-tuning.
But of course they will need to refocus. We are only halfway through the season. There remains a lot of football to be played.
CAN HENK HELP WAKE WAHDA FROM SLUMBER?
Sleeping giants Al Wahda seemed certain to mount a serious claim for a maiden league title in nine seasons at the beginning of 2018/19.
But after the Boss were beaten to the Arabian Gulf Super Cup title in Cairo in August and the campaign opened with a scintillating 6-2 destruction of Ittihad Kalba, it’s been quite the fall from grace for the Clarets.
They won their next two by a combined scoreline of 8-2 but then the wheels started to fall off for Laurentiu Reghecampf. Of their last nine league games, victory was savoured just twice as they spiraled away from the top of the table to currently sit sixth.
Romanian Reghecampf was jettisoned following a 2-1 defeat to Jazira on November 23, which ironically has since led to the return of former Pride of Abu Dhabi coach Henk ten Cate to the capital.
When the Dutchman arrived in Abu Dhabi in December 2015 he set about a revolution at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium that led to 2016/17’s title triumph. He began brightly enough with Emirates put to the sword in a 5-0 Arabian Gulf Cup thrashing at the end of December.
But Wahda are a mammoth 13 points adrift of table-topping Sharjah as they head to Kalba. But with former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant Ten Cate now at the helm, and in charge of arguably the most talented squad in the league, expect a shake-up of epic proportions.