Complications abound when Saudi Professional League behemoth Al Hilal welcome UAE equivalents Al Ain to Riyadh in the 2019 AFC Champions League.
Uncomfortable ends to this term are ongoing, domestically, for clubs set to relinquish their top-flight crowns. The similarities, however, do not extend to continental competition.
Monday’s hosts at King Saud University Stadium are one victory away from escaping an exacting Group C, with a game to spare. In contrast, the winless – and severely depleted – Boss sit bottom and are already virtually eliminated.
CHAMUSCA’S FREE HIT
A familiar face has not survived.
Croatian supremo Zoran Mamic departed the Garden City in late January for Hilal and oversaw March’s 1-0 win at his former employers. But humiliation on a historic scale to Al Taawoun in last month’s King’s Cup semi-finals necessitated an early dismissal.
Last Monday witnessed temporary replacement Pericles Chamusca lose his debut, 2-0 against the same opponent, and cede control of the SPL’s title race to loathed neighbours Al Nassr.
How the Brazilian will welcome Monday’s relative free-hit…
BOSS WILL FEEL BLUE
Al Ain are a car crash that keeps on skidding.
The highs of December’s runners-up spot at the Club World Cup now seem an illusion. Mamic’s successor, Juan Carlos Garrido, is enduring a seven-match winless run.
A heavy loss to guarantee group-stage elimination for the first time since 2013 seems inevitable. Even the return of disciplinary outcast Caio – a Brazilian forward seemingly bound for Benfica – offers little realistic hope.
OTAYF TO EASE BACK IN
The time has surely come to thrust Saudi Arabia artisan Abdullah Otayf back into the XI after injury.
The 26-year-old played both, dispiriting, second halves against Taawoun off the substitutes’ bench.
Al Ain, now, are an ideal opponent for him.
There is strength to test himself against in likely opposite numbers Ahmed Barman, Tongo Doumbia and Amer Abdulrahman. But not too much to risk confidence.
He’ll be a treasured asset for the knockouts, if handled correctly.
Unbeaten Sharjah are feeling the “pressure” after their stumbles towards a long-awaited Arabian Gulf League title success continued with a 2-2 draw versus bottom-placed Dibba Al Fujairah, according to boss Abdulaziz Al Anbari.
The King recorded their third top-flight draw on the spin when Moroccan midfielder Driss Fettouhi slotted in a 54th-minute penalty for Friday’s visitors to Khalid bin Mohammed Stadium. A bullet header from UAE centre-back Shaheen Abdulrahman and 18-goal Brazilian striker Welliton’s one-on-one finish had previously seen the hosts rebound from Diogo Acosta’s early opener.
Even amid this downturn, victory at mid-table Al Wasl next Saturday will guarantee the trophy for the first time since 1995/96 regardless of what second-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club do at Al Nasr 24 hours prior.
“Thank God for the result,” said Al Anbari, whose troops are six points ahead with three games left. “We wished for the best, but we entered the game poorly and that did not help.
“I do not blame the players as the pressure on the team is very large.
“This match should be quickly forgotten and the focus must be put on upcoming matches, which will be difficult.
“It is possible that the team has been influenced by the talk from the street in terms of Sharjah settling the league. At the same time, the pressure on everyone is great and this is normal for a team that has not won the competition for many years.
“The final metres are always difficult and the players are making great efforts. I hope to be stronger and we all need to unite at this stage.”
Sharjah had belied their status as regular relegation battlers with a sensational start to 2018/19 that included seven wins and three draws in their opening 10 fixtures.
The likes of troubled holders Al Ain, youthful Al Jazira and improving Shabab Al Ahli have not been able to live with them.
Al Anbari selflessly took the blame for their recent stutters.
He said: “The team’s level of decline is mainly borne by the technical staff. I thank the players for their early season form.
“I am optimistic that the negative results will not continue and that the team is able to return to victories.”
No club in the decade-long professional era have ever gone undefeated before.
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…