Al Ain fought back from a goal down – as well as recovering from a humiliating and historic 4-0 hammering at home against Ajman last time out – to spoil the Sharjah title party.
A 2-1 win was in the offing and would have been significant, a maiden black mark on the King’s previously unbeaten 2018/19 calendar, but Sharjah struck late to preserve their unbeaten Arabian Gulf League campaign.
Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s side remain nine points clear at the top, with the result a shot in the arm for a Boss side who looked completely shot in their galling defeat on Saturday.
Igor Coronado’s rocket of a free-kick gifted the hosts a fortunate lead but the Boss’ Jamal Maroof – an ex-Sharjah employer – fired his side level and also won the penalty from which Tsukasa Shiotani put them in front. Welliton atoned for his concession of the penalty to level minutes from the end.
With such a pivotal role played against his old team, we take a closer look at the performance of hard-working Maroof:
GOT RIGHT – PENALTY BOX PREDATOR
For a forward not exactly known for his goalscoring prowess, Maroof showed plenty of attacking magic against his former side – in the thick of all the main action.
He latched onto Bandar Al Ahbabi’s intelligent threaded pass and lashed home a clever first-time finish to flummox Sharjah stopper Adel Al Hosani and draw Al Ain level in the 35th minute
He was only denied a second goal by a stunning Al Hosani save just after the hour mark when he met Al Ahbabi’s clever cross with his head at the back post. He was then also pivotal in the incident from which the Boss did take a 2-1 lead.
At first his fall felt theatrical, but replays showed Sharjah striker Welliton’s attempt to clear was wild as he caught Maroof, who tumbled.
GOT WRONG – DECISION MAKING
You have to admire a player who, while limited, excels just because he does the simple things so well – running, tackling, passing to more gifted team-mates. It is simple traits such as these that so many footballers today undervalue.
But while Maroof’s boundless energy and limitless work ethic are admirable qualities, it means he often gets caught out of position chasing lost or needless causes – a case in point was his booking for tracking Majed Surour so closely that he felt the urge to tug him back, which gave Sharjah attacking impetus.
After two fruitless years at Sharjah, you could forgive Maroof for feeling more than a little miffed that he jumped ship at the wrong time in the summer – although how was he to know that the King were about to embark on a royally impressive campaign?
He’s never been the most prolific of finishers – his highest season’s tally stands at three, for Emirates Club, in 2013/14. That’s pretty woeful for a forward. But while he only sporadically delivers in front of goal, what is always guaranteed is graft and grit.
There was also plenty of guile here as his finish was both instinctive and clinical – while his energy and tireless work-rate posed constant problems for his former side.
35th min: Rayan Yaslam rides a challenge and feeds Al Ahbabi. He sees the run of Maroof and threads an inch-perfect pass into his pass and he shoots first time through the legs of Al Hosani.
65th min: Al Ahbabi intelligently stands up a cross to Maroof at the back post. Only a sensational Al Hosani save prevents the forward from nodding in his second.
68th min: Controversial moment as Maroof drops to the floor in the box. Replays suggest Welliton’s challenge was more than a little robust – even if Maroof’s tumble was theatrical. VAR is consulted and the penalty is given. Shiotani smashes home the spot kick with his weaker right foot.
78th min: Maroof chases down Surour and earns a yellow for tugging him back.
A change of guard could be completed on Wednesday night in the Arabian Gulf League.
Unbeaten leaders Sharjah welcome ailing champions Al Ain for a contest that contains sides in wildly contrasting form.
Here are the talking points:
MOVING IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS
Impending glory and ongoing disaster are the themes that define this game.
Ex-Palermo playmaker Igor Coronado remained a snip at €6 million when his brace saw the King come from behind and beat promoted Bani Yas 2-1 last Friday. Historic humiliation followed for their lurching fourth-placed rivals a day later, directionless Al Ain slumping to their heaviest home defeat of the professional era – a disgraceful, error-strewn 4-0 victory for mid-table Ajman.
The UAE’s most-decorated club have lost all sense of purpose – and won just three times in 11 fixtures – since a mid-season break that saw coach Zoran Mamic defect to Saudi Professional League giants Al Hilal and Egypt midfielder Hussein El Shahat sold to Al Ahly.
Everything has moved in a different direction, however, for Sharjah since they gave stalwart Abdulaziz Al Anbari the reins full-time in winter 2017.
Al Ain are no match for them in 2018/19 – as evidenced by October’s 2-1 victory on their territory in the reverse fixture. But can they earn a symbolic, emboldening win this midweek?
Not likely on current form.
It was a moment to sum up the pandemonium at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
Beyond the abysmal defending from creaking veterans Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem, Brazilian forward Caio’s petulant reaction to coach Juan Carlos Garrido’s after being hooked spoke volumes about a poisoned mood.
The Spanish supremo now has a decision to make.
Ditch one of his few remaining stars and reinforce squad discipline, or risk further humiliation in the absence of an asset that is reportedly bound for Portugal giants Benfica.
Coronado neither sits atop of the AGL’s scoring or assist charts.
Yet, his influence on this campaign has been substantial. The Brazilian’s five goals and one assist, alone, against the other members of the top four – Shabab Al Ahli Dubai, Al Jazira and Al Ain – is a major reason why a top-flight trophy drought should not extend into a 24th year.
The Al Jazira pair of Ali Mabkhout (19 goals) and Khalfan Mubarak (12) have scored six more times and set-up five more strikes than Coronado. Even more than invigorated team-mates Welliton and Shahin Abdulrahman, however, the Brazilian has catalysed the King.
Collective and individual acclaim will be close if he produces another virtuoso display.
It’s been an uncomfortable rollercoaster of a ride for Al Ain this season, and the journey reached its most stomach-churning moment on Saturday night as they suffered a 4-0 hammering at home to Ajman.
In the pouring rain, Al Ain’s reign as Arabian Gulf League champions effectively came to an emphatic end – the shocking performance even more abnormal than the weather.
On a dark day in the Garden City, both in terms of the teeming rain and performance from the hosts, the effervescence of the Orange Brigade’s performance was the only bright thing on display.
A nadir was reached in a tumultuous campaign. Defeat was their worst result at home in the professional era – which began in the 2008/09 season.
A penny for the thoughts then of their former coach, Zlatko Dalic, who was seen taking selfies in the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium stands during the second half of the rout.
Dalic led his native Croatia to the World Cup final last summer – surpassing the feats of the country’s golden generation two decades previously at France ‘98. They eventually succumbed to a 4-1 defeat to France and Les Bleus’ own golden crop, but Dalic had dazzled.
As for his former employers? The Boss’ grip on their Arabian Gulf League crown is slipping, with the King as good as coronated – Sharjah are nine points clear of second-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club with six games to go.
The Boss lie 12 points adrift and have now slipped to fourth, behind Al Jazira. Al Ain – the most dominant team in UAE football history, both pre and post-professionalism – are in real danger of not qualifying for the AFC Champions League for the first time in seven years.
It must have been an uncomfortable watch for the former coach who, despite his tumultuous exit in January 2017, holds the club close to his heart. He conceded at last year’s World Cup “I will stay Ainawi for ever” – a reference to the club’s fans.
Al Ain’s form in recent weeks has been troubling in general. A credible 2-2 draw in midweek against Al Duhail in the Champions League – the Boss had trailed 2-0 in Doha – masked a stretch of wretched results.
It was sandwiched by a 5-1 drubbing to fierce rivals Jazira in UAE football’s glamour game, ‘Al Clasico’, and Saturday’s home humbling against Ajman, a team promoted just two seasons ago.
Not much has gone right for Al Ain since – or prior for that matter – the departure of Dalic’s compatriot, Zoran Mamic, at the start of the year.
His first season in charge had ended in unprecedented success. Mamic – part of that golden generation squad in France two decades ago, playing for Bundesliga club Bochum as a defensive midfielder – stepped in and hardly missed a beat domestically.
A record-extending 13th league title was captured last term, while Al Ain also hoisted a seventh President’s Cup – the first time in the club’s 50-year history they had done the double.
They reached the final of the FIFA Club World Cup on home soil in December – going down memorably to the mighty Real Madrid, losing 4-1.
But this season, things have started to unravel. It began disastrously with the shock return of prized asset Omar Abdulrahman to boyhood club Al Hilal.
Egyptian schemer Hussein El Shahat – who had been so prolific following an initial January 2018 loan move (eventually made permanent) from Misr Lel Makkasa – was bizarrely let go, returning to his homeland with Al Ahly.
Allowing Abdulrahman to run down his contract and eventually leave on a free transfer was just the latest, if most painful, instance of player mismanagement. The club had previously allowed battling South Korea midfielder Lee Myung-joo to depart for no fee.
Brazilian winger Caio – arguably the most influential Al Ain foreign signing since Asamoah Gyan – is likely to depart this summer, for nothing, and join Portuguese giants Benfica.
Mamic then followed Amoory’s lead and departed for Saudi Arabia giants Hilal in January. The Boss have won just three games in a run of 11 since, losing five.
New Spanish coach Juan Carlos Garrido has overseen four defeats and just two wins in eight matches in charge. It is the club’s worst run in nearly six years since a stretch of six losses, one draw and one victory straddled the end of the 2012/13 and dawn of the 2013/14 campaigns between the toxic end to Cosmin Olaroiu’s tenure and Jorge Fossati’s disastrous 46-day reign.
Al Ain are now in real danger of missing out on next season’s Champions League – they have not failed to qualify for Asia’s most glamorous club competition since 2012. They won it in 2002/03, the only UAE team to don the continental crown.
But, right now, with Sharjah on the cusp of a maiden league title in 23 years, Shabab Al Ahli also on the rise, and Jazira and Al Wahda in good shape too, Al Ain could be in danger of sliding into obscurity.
Some way to follow 2018’s reaching of their half century. The Boss are in a mess, and it is one of their own making.