Round 23 of the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
Unbeaten leaders Sharjah are just one win away from a first title since 1995/96 after Brazilian striker Welliton rescued a 2-2 draw with bottom-placed Dibba Al Fujairah, while 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil’s renaissance continued with two stunning free-kicks in second-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s 3-2 win against Al Dhafra.
Here are Sport360’°s top picks and a talking point:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Marcao (Emirates Club)
An unlikely saviour emerged this weekend in Emirates Club’s perennial battle against the drop.
Brazilian anchor man Marcao rose majestically in the second minute to head home in the ‘relegation six-pointer’ at Fujairah, then dug in to ensure an invaluable 1-0 triumph was secured. A three-point gap with three games left is reward.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Caio Canedo (Al Wasl)
It’s been a sorrowful season for Brazilian forward Caio and everyone associated with Al Wasl.
The five-season veteran, however, reaffirmed his quality in the 2-1 win at Ajman. Sharp feet from fellow Brazilian Fabio De Lima bought space inside the area and a low cross was adroitly stroked home at the first attempt by Caio, making it 13 goals in 23 AGL matches.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Caio Zanardi (Al Nasr)
Zanardi is making this management lark seem easy, in contrast to his troubled predecessors.
Friday’s 2-1 win against promoted Bani Yas was a fourth in five matches since a second caretaker spell of the season at Al Nasr. It also followed Wednesday’s call to make the technical director their permanent coach until 2021 – better times, probably, await.
King Khalil’s timely return to form
Weeks like this looked at an end for history making, but injury ravaged, UAE forward Ahmed Khalil.
The 2015 AFC Player of the Year produced three staggering free-kicks in four days, both versus Al Dhafra, to claim both the President’s Cup and cement second place for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club. That’s now five goals in his last six run-outs.
New UAE boss Bert van Marwijk was, also, sure to be an interested observer. World Cup 2022 qualifying begins in September…
Full-back Bandar Al Ahbabi showcased why he is such a valuable asset for the UAE and Al Ain with an influential performance in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw against Ittihad Kalba in the Arabian Gulf League.
Al Ahbabi, 28, drilled a low rebound home once Japan defender Tsukasa Shiotani’s penalty was saved and made the score 1-1. A dangerous cross was then produced by the goal scorer to cause chaos in the visitors’ ranks, from which promising winger Mohamed Khalfan headed in.
Ivory Coast forward Giovanni Sio would complete his brace in first-half injury time to ensure a share of the spoils. This, however, could not prevent Al Ahbabi from becoming our Roger Dubuis Al Ain Player of the Day.
STATISTICS – AL AIN
Possession: 60 per cent
On target: 9
GOT RIGHT – ATTACKING ASSET
The dynamic and effervescent Al Ahbabi has developed into a stand-out full-back for club and country, after a career largely spent further up the pitch.
This attacking pedigree was on show at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium against Kalba as he did his best to stop the Boss’ winless run in all competitions at six matches.
The finish to force in a first top-flight goal from 19 appearances this term deserved high praise. Fine technique was exhibited to find the bottom corner.
An unquenched desire to bomb forward also helped put the Boss into a lead they, ultimately, could not hold on to.
GOT WRONG – NO DEFENSIVE LEADERS
Al Ain’s Achilles heel throughout a dispiriting second half of the season has been their creaking backline.
Whether with veterans like Ismail Ahmed or colts such as Saeed Juma, the goals have kept flying into their net.
Al Ahbabi is an experienced asset, yet defensive diligence isn’t, strictly, his forte. He’s started every fixture since March 30’s 2-1 win against Fujairah, a period in which 17 goals goals have been conceded.
No wonder points are draining away every time under ex-Villarreal tactician Juan Carlos Garrido. This weakness is leaving the attack with far too much to do.
7th min GOAL: Al Ahbabi is wide awake and follows in a penalty stop from Kalba goalkeeper Jamal Ali.
16th min CHANCE: The right-back launches a challenging cross, forcing Kalba’s dawdling defence into several slips that Khalfan will punish to make it 2-1.
Two-goal hero Ahmed Khalil has declared Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club have only just got started after they defeated Al Dhafra 2-1 to lift the President’s Cup and end the amalgamated club’s two-year wait for a first trophy.
2015 AFC Player of the Year Khalil, 27, headed in the first-half opener on Monday evening at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and then produced a delightful free-kick to double the advantage. Veteran Western Knights striker Saeed Al Kathiri responded to tee up a grandstand finish, but an equaliser couldn’t be found.
“As an ambitious striker, it was great to register and thank God for the success and scoring of two goals,” he told Al Bayan.
“This achievement is not strange to our club, historically we owned many titles. We look forward to continuing the effort in the coming period.
“We did not easily beat Al Dhafra, who also aspired to the title.
“They had the ambition to win their first title in a difficult final game of course, but we managed to control it and ultimately achieve our goal and win the title.”
May 2017’s merger of Al Shabab, Al Ahli and Dubai CSC created the current outfit.
Under Argentine boss Rodolfo Arruabarrena, they also sit a distant second in the Arabian Gulf League behind unbeaten leaders Sharjah.