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?
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