It’s the penultimate week of action in UAE domestic football and Wednesday has the potential to play a pivotal role at both ends of the Arabian Gulf League table.
Sharjah – who for so long have been marching to the title – all of a sudden have a real scrap on their hands to lift a first championship in nearly quarter of a century, with Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club in hot pursuit.
Al Jazira, Al Ain and Al Wahda are battling for the third and final AFC Champions League spot. And can Emirates Club defy the odds and avoid relegation, yet again?
We look ahead to last but one round of fixtures.
KING NO LONGER FAVOURITES FOR CROWN?
Sharjah are stumbling over the line and their task of lifting a belated sixth AGL crown will be seriously tested by an in-form Al Wahda on Wednesday.
A month ago they stood on the precipice of a maiden league title in 23 years. They’d just overcome a tricky test against promoted Bani Yas, who have enjoyed a stellar return to the top-flight, winning 2-1. Even when they then drew 2-2 with falling champions Al Ain in their next encounter, second-placed Shabab Al Ahli slipped to a 1-0 defeat at home to Wahda. It nudged them 10 points clear with five games to go. Job done.
Except, Sharjah have since slipped to draws against rock-bottom Dibba Al Fujairah and promoted strugglers Ittihad Kalba, while dreams of a maiden unbeaten season in the professional era were dashed last time out when Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s troops lost for the first time, downed 3-2 by Al Wasl in their 24th game of the campaign.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men, meanwhile, have roared to three straight wins – in addition to lifting the President’s Cup – to sit just three points adrift ahead of the penultimate round of action.
As Sharjah welcome Henk ten Cate’s Champions League-chasing Clarets, Shabab Al Ahli host Bani Yas. Both are tricky games but successive defeats for Sharjah and victory for their rivals would now leave the sides locked on the same points, with Sharjah’s goal difference superior by five as things stand.
The King are crumbling, but have they already been beaten, psychologically? We will know more after the dust settles on Wednesday.
CLARITY FOR THE CLARETS
Besides being in breathtaking form – they have lost just once in their last eight league games to surge up the table – Wahda will have designs on finishing in the coveted third and final Champions League spot.
Iconic former Al Jazira coach Ten Cate – much like he did when he took over the struggling Pride of Abu Dhabi halfway through the 2015/16 season and steered them back on the right course – has had a galvanising effect on a talented squad that had somehow veered away from a bright beginning to the campaign.
Laurentiu Reghecampf – who has since moved on to Wasl – was dismissed after a 2-1 home defeat to Jazira at the end of November, the culmination of a five-game winless streak that left them marooned in fifth.
Ten Cate has overseen a run of 14 wins in his 20 games in charge, including eight victories from 12 league games. The Al Nahyan Stadium outfit remain fifth but only on goal difference with crestfallen champions Al Ain. Ten Cate’s former side Jazira occupy third and the sought-after final Asia spot.
For the Clarets, the goal is clear. Take the AGL crown out of the hands of the King this week and follow it up by beating its former wearers – Al Ain – in their final game in 10 days’ time, and Ten Cate could write his name into folklore at a second capital club.
CAN THE FALCONS FLY CLEAR YET AGAIN?
Fans of Emirates Club will be fed up of seeing their side mired in the relegation muck, season after season. No-one wants to see their team constantly struggling to stay afloat. They’d rather be progressing, pushing into the sanctuary of mid-table, or even hitting the heights of their President’s Cup win from 2009/10.
But one thing that will fill followers of the Falcons with joy heading into the final two weeks of the season – and yet another seemingly impossible escape – is that they are battle-hardened. They have been there and done it all before, got the t-shirt. They have several of those in fact.
Twelve months ago they finished in the bottom two but staved off relegation after overcoming Al Hamriyah 1-0 in a relegation play-off with the First Division League club. In 2016/17 they finished 12th of the 14 teams, surviving by a point thanks to a final day 1-0 win at Al Nasr.
It was a similar story the previous season where a 0-0 draw with runners-up Al Ain on the last day was enough to again survive by a mere point.
They finished 10th in 2014/15 – their highest placing since winning promotion two years earlier – and 11th the previous campaign.
This trait should fill Fujairah-based duo Fujairah and Dibba with fear ahead of the final two games. Dibba look doomed as there is a five-point gap to their neighbours and Emirates, who are both on 18 points.
It won’t be straightforward for either side, but Emirates’ prior record gives them the edge. They go to Ajman while the Wolves host Nasr on Thursday, with both facing the top two – Fujairah travel to Shabab Al Ahli and Emirates welcome Sharjah – on the final day.
Can the Falcons somehow avoid getting their wings clipped and keep flying? History suggests when given the choice of fight or flight, the Falcons soar.
Al Jazira coach Damien Hertog insists it’s vital his side not only secure three points but produce a performance their fans can be proud of as they look to take a big step towards securing AFC Champions League football next year.
In their final home Arabian Gulf League match of the season, Jazira host Al Dhafra on Wednesday, knowing victory over their Abu Dhabi neighbours will maintain their grip on third position with one game to go and strengthen their chances of getting back to Asia’s premier club competition.
Hertog appreciates the fans’ support throughout the entire season and asserted the Pride of Abu Dhabi faithful deserve to be treated to attractive and attacking football.
“It’s important for everyone in the team to give their best display for the fans and finish the last home match in style,” said Hertog during the pre-match press conference.
“It’s not just three points that we want but making our fans proud by playing excellent football, creating chances and scoring goals for them.
“We have scored the most goals this season and that says something about us as we like to play attacking football. The fans enjoy the way we play and we want to combine this by getting a victory.
Next Match— Al Jazira Club (@AlJazira_uae_EN) 12 May 2019
⚽️ Al Jazira vs. @aldhafraclub_ae
🏆 @AGLeague_EN MatchWeek 25
🏟️ Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium
📅 Wednesday, May 15.
⏱️ Kickoff 22:00, Gates Open 20:00
🎟️ Available at https://t.co/qh0PWlVHQg pic.twitter.com/2cdGoyY7yb
“We know three points will boost our chances of qualifying for the Champions League. That is still in our own hands and we will give our best to maintain our position.”
While long-term absentees Mohamed Jamal and Ahmed Rabea remain ruled out through injury, Hertog could also be without Fares Juma and Salem Al Eidi, who are carrying slight knocks. Top-scorer Ali Mabkhout misses out again through suspension.
Despite having a near full-strength squad, Hertog said his players will not take the Western Knights lightly especially after losing to them earlier in the season.
“I expect a tough game against Al Dhafra,” said the Dutchman. “They beat us before earlier in the season and that gave them a lot of confidence for the rest of the season. They reached the President’s Cup final but I am confident if we can play really well we can beat them.”
Young striker Zayed Al Ameri said he his team-mates are determined to get all three points against Dhafra.
“It’s the last home game of the season and we will give our best to win the match,” said the 22-year-old. “We will try and play to our highest level and give the fans something to celebrate.”
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?