The possibility of a perfect season is over for Sharjah and now the prospect of a maiden Arabian Gulf League title in quarter of a century is under real threat after they lost for the first time this season.
A last-gasp 3-2 triumph for Al Wasl on Saturday not only dashed dreams of an historic first-ever unbeaten AGL season by any team – it also means their once commanding lead at the top has been trimmed to just three points.
Recent woes and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s surge means there is suddenly all to play for with two games remaining.
The King could realistically have been crowned champions on Saturday night as a win over Wasl would have given them a six-point lead over second-placed Shabab Al Ahli with two games to go. But Sharjah have been stumbling down the home stretch, having failed to win in their last four and tasting triumph just once in their last six.
Signs of nerves have been creeping in over recent weeks – a 2-2 draw at home with bottom club Dibba Al Fujairah last week proved panic had firmly set in – and now they have placed themselves in a real dogfight to lift a first league title since 1995/96.
The bigger worry is their next game. They face a daunting home task at AFC Champions League-chasing Al Wahda on Wednesday, while a final day appointment at relegation-battling Emirates Club is no stroll.
1] 53— Arabian Gulf League (@AGLeague_EN) 11 May 2019
Shabab Al Ahli, meanwhile, have the easier fixtures. They are at home for both, welcoming a promoted Bani Yas side that are almost guaranteed a stellar sixth-placed finish on their top-flight return. A final day fixture follows against another promoted side Fujairah, who are battling to avoid an immediate return to First Division League.
“The last-minute losses are always difficult, but I’m proud of all the players and my confidence is still great that they are capable of achieving the current goal of winning the title,” said Sharjah coach Abdulaziz Al Anbari.
“The reaction of the players to return in the next two games gives us optimism.
“We have a difficult encounter (against Wahda) and the preparation period is short. We have to be very focused on the game because we need points.
“The toughest stage is coming because of the many absences in our ranks due to suspension or injury. We will work to find solutions in the upcoming games and I’m confident in the players after the loss today. I hope we are motivated to provide the best in the coming games.
“I congratulate Al Wasl for the level they played at and the win. You have to forget this game and the result.”
The King thought they were a step closer to their crown when they opened the scoring after 10 minutes at Zabeel Stadium, but star man Igor Coronado’s effort was ruled out for a foul against Wasl keeper Sultan Al Mantheri, after consulting the VAR.
And it was the Cheetahs who raced into the lead six minutes before the break. Fabio De Lima’s effort from outside the box deflected off a defender and nestled in Adel Al Hosani’s net.
تصريح المدرب عبدالعزيز العنبري بعد لقاء الوصل: الحمدلله على كل حال وقدر الله وماشاء فعل، يجب نسيان هذي المباراة والنتيجة، ابارك لفريق الوصل هذا المستوى والفوز. pic.twitter.com/StxpB0o22V— Sharjah نادي الشارقة (@SharjahFC) 11 May 2019
The visitors levelled in the 65th minute when, after an impressive move inside the box, the ball fell to Ali Al Dhanhani who powered into the bottom right corner.
But the hosts were back in front seven minutes later when Ali Saleh smashed home after captain Caio Canedo found him with a pass.
Sharjah refused to give up and netted a second equaliser six minutes from time. They were awarded a penalty following a foul from Al Mantheri, and Coronado converted from the spot to make it 2-2.
Al Anbari’s side pressed for the winner that would almost certainly have ended their title drought but were dealt a blow as Shaeen Abdelrahman saw red for a second booking two minutes from time.
And, deep into injury time, De Lima delivered again with a devastating long drive that flew past Al Hosani to net three points for the men in yellow and leave Sharjah feeling blue.
The contest got off to an even start before the visitors showed their quality against the bottom-placed outfit by taking the lead in the 22nd minute when Caio’s ball in was flicked on by Khalid Al Baloushi and finished by Amer Abdulrahman.
The hosts did put up a fight and forced Khalid Essa into a couple of superb saves but The Boss squandered chances of their own to extend their lead. Caio even had the ball in the back of the net 15 minutes from time but his effort was ruled out for offside.
The Brazilian made no mistake in stoppage time though when he latched on to a quick throw-in before out-witting the keeper and scoring the second to seal the win.
Here we take a closer look at Caio’s performance.
Struggling Dibba were eager for a result in their bid to avoid relegation and therefore started this encounter pretty fiercely. They went toe-to-toe with Al Ain and even made some early inroads down the left flank where Yasen Al Bakhet caused Saeed Juma plenty of problems.
Visiting keeper Essa also needed to come to his side’s aid on occasion. His first-half save to deny Driss Fettouhi’s header from a Yasser Abdullah free-kick was outstanding. He then denied Abdullah in a one-on-one in the second period.
However, Al Ain had plenty of firepower of their own and Caio was the livewire in their attack. The forward created plenty of openings and even set up the goal for Abdulrahman.
In truth, the away side should’ve been out of side but for some poor finishing with Ruben Ribeiro guilty of fluffing his lines on a few occasions.
Caio did ensure victory with his strike at the death but the Dibba players didn’t take kindly to the quick freekick and Fettouhi was issued a straight red for throwing the ball at the referee in frustration shortly before the final whistle.
GOT RIGHT – CONSTANT THREAT
Apart from a couple of lapses in defence, Al Ain had begun proceedings rather well in possession. However, they needed someone to take the initiative in order to put the hosts under pressure and Caio answered their call.
The Brazilian proved to be the catalyst as his mesmeric dribbling and excellent close control sparked Al Ain into life. Caio was able to attract the attentions of two or three Dibba defenders at a time, dragging them out of position and creating space for his team-mates to exploit.
His quick feet came to the fore in the 22nd minute when he beat his man on the left flank before sending in a dangerous low ball into the box. Khalid Al Baloushi made a run to the near post and got the final touch before Abdulrahman finished well but make no mistake, Caio was the architect.
Dibba were to be bamboozled once more when the South American sashayed past a couple of defenders inside the area before having his shot blocked. Caio continued to threaten throughout with his dangerous runs in behind and ability to drive at the defence rendering a constant nuisance for the home team.
GOT WRONG – POSITIONING
While it was a very tight call and a tad unfortunate, Caio must accept a share of the blame for being caught offside when he had a goal ruled out in the second half. The Brazilian didn’t get back in line with the ball and after a VAR check, was rightly denied.
There were other occasions as well when Caio’s eagerness to score saw him make his runs too early, forcing the man on the ball to look elsewhere for a pass.
The 25-year-old was desperate to be involved but at times that led him to drop too deep, leaving Al Ain short of options inside the box.
On the other hand, Caio’s positioning was impeccable at the death when he took advantage of a quick throw-in, beat the keeper and scored the second to kill off the tie.
Not only did he dazzle the opposition with his slaloming runs, but his link-up play meant nearly every good move Al Ain put together went through him. On another day, he would’ve had a brace to his name but was unfortunate to be caught offside before showing outstanding composure to score deep into stoppage time.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi make the long trip to Ras Al Khaimah for Friday’s clash as they look to register their first triumph in three matches and put their AFC Champions League qualification hopes back on track.
After describing their display as unacceptable in last week’s 3-1 defeat to Al Wahda in the Abu Dhabi derby, Hertog expects Jazira to play their best football against Emirates, who are battling once again to avoid the drop.
“Last week, we committed mistakes against Al Wahda and I said before that shouldn’t be the level of football we should play at,” said Hertog during the pre-match press conference.
“We have to put on a much improved performance this time because winning gives everyone confidence and belief and that will help us for the remainder of the season.
“We know how important this game is for us. We have lost twice and drawn once in our last three matches and if we want to reach the AFC Champions League, then we have to start winning. Our target is to claim all three points and we don’t want nothing less than that.”
Jazira have slipped to third in their recent poor run. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club are six points ahead in second, while Sharjah look to have the league title sewn up.
The team that finish third will enter the 2020 Champions League qualifiers and the Abu Dhabi outfit are a point above outgoing champions Al Ain and their cross-city rival Clarets.
They will be without long-term absentees Ahmed Rabea, Mohamed Jamal as well as Fares Juma through injury for Friday’s game, while star striker Ali Mabkhout misses out due to suspension.
While Hertog is fully aware of the threat posed by the Falcons, three points above the relegation zone, he wants his team to keep a clean sheet.
“Football is a team game and that is defending and attacking as one,” said Hertog. “I hope we don’t concede any goals because it’s been a long time since we achieved that.”
Cameroon midfielder Sebastian Siani insists the players are determined to showcase their quality again and help Jazira reach next season’s Champions League.
“We haven’t won in three games but we are eager to end that bad run of results,” said the 32-year-old. “It will not be an easy game but we will give our best to win the match and help Al Jazira reach the AFC Champions League.”