Sharjah’s dream lies shattered and now they face the daunting prospect of trying to pick up the broken shards and somehow piece their season back together.
They have stuttered down the home straight in this once processional Arabian Gulf League title race, which has all of a sudden exploded into life.
Pressure does funny things to teams and individuals – especially when you’re trying to lift a first league title in almost half a century. It’s as if the closer they edge to history, the more fragile they become.
Seemingly invincible all season, their bout of jitters has now left them extremely vulnerable. And their remaining two games pose a test of their mental fortitude as juggernauts Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club mercilessly chase them down.
Liverpool can relate to that feeling as they have battled all season long with Manchester City for the Premier League crown. But while the Reds have simply been unlucky and far from bottled their chance of ending 29 years of hurt, Sharjah are mimicking the Merseysiders’ form from five years ago, where they capitulated to hand City the 2013/14 title.
No club in the decade-long professional era have ever gone undefeated before. And in the midst of trying to create a little piece of AGL history, perhaps Sharjah have lost sight of the fact that just hoisting a maiden UAE top-flight title since 1995/96 would suffice.
What will be of pressing concern to coach Abdulalziz Al Anbari now is that, unlike in recent weeks where they’ve had the opportunity to close out the season with winnable fixtures against promoted Ittihad Kalba and rock-bottom Dibba, the pressure only increases.
In-form Al Wahda are the visitors on Wednesday and Henk ten Cate’s side – who last week reached the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League for the first time in 12 years – are chasing down Al Ain and Al Jazira for the coveted third continental qualification spot for next year.
Veteran Clarets striker Sebastian Tagliabue is only getting better with age – the 34-year-old plundered a hat-trick against Ajman on Saturday that moved him onto 25 goals for the season. He is top of the scoring charts, six ahead of Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout, and needs three more to surpass his best AGL tally of 28 from 2013/14.
Shabab Al Ahli are the joint best side in the league on form – alongside Wahda – with seven wins in their last eight. Buoyed by their President’s Cup triumph over Al Dhafra at the beginning of the month, they can now dream of the double.
They have been bruised, but now Sharjah face their most telling test. Will they bend and bounce back, or break beyond repair?
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.