Al Ain caretaker Zeljko Sopic still wanted to “thank my players for everything”, despite a frustrating scoreless debut against Emirates Club.
Tumult surrounded the Boss ahead of Tuesday’s resumption in the Arabian Gulf League after the winter break. Coach Zoran Mamic suddenly departed for Saudi Professional League giants Al Hilal last week, while Sweden No9 Marcus Berg was banned for the visit to Hazza bin Zayed Stadium of second-bottom opponents.
The champions laid siege to the Falcons’ goal, with new boy Ruben Ribeiro – the replacement for Egpyt midfielder Hussein El Shahat following his $5 million sale to Al Ahly – going closest when his low effort was cleared off the line by Saad Al Yassi. This result saw a five-point gap open up to unbeaten leaders Sharjah.
“They [the players] gave a good return and gave my team several real opportunities to score and we were close to scoring three goals, but we missed the deciding factor,” said the usual Under-23s coach.
“I would like to thank my players for everything they have done.”
Al Ain play their game in hand on Sunday against Al Wahda, in a hotly anticipated derby.
They are yet to confirm whether a permanent successor will be in situ for the clash.
Ex-Belgium and Ivory Coast coach Marc Wilmots has been linked to the post. But chairman Ghanim Al Hajeri on Wednesday dismissed this rumour.
He tweeted: “The name [Wilmots] that was traded in the media with the exclusive news logo is surprising and untrue.
“In response to the most frequently asked questions, I confirm that Al Ain did not negotiate with any Belgian coach.
“There are two instructors from two different school. We trust in their abilities to contribute to the realisation of Al Ain’s local and Asian ambitions.”
Former Portugal midfielder Paulo Sousa and ex-Inter Milan boss Andrea Stramaccioni have also been highlighted as possible options in Italian media.
Meanwhile, the Henk ten Cate-era received the seal of approval after a rapier top-flight beginning at Ittihad Kalba.
A quartet of first-half goals helped secure an eventual 4-2 victory for Al Wahda. Tanzanian/Emirati forward Yahya Al Ghassani was given his first AGL start in the clash and the 20-year-old seemed thrilled by the club’s new dawn after a faltering first half of the campaign under Laurentiu Reghecampf.
“We have forgotten the past,” Al Ghassani told Dubai Sports. “The presence of the new coach [Ten Cate] gave us motivation and we understood his tactics well.”
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.