Victory was all that mattered for relieved Al Ain boss Ivan Leko after a dramatic opening Arabian Gulf League victory against Ittihad Kalba.
Utility defender Saeed Juma, 21, struck a deflected first senior goal in the 96th minute at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium to secure Friday’s memorable 3-2 triumph.
This marked some introduction for Leko, hired this summer by the UAE’s most-decorated club after a trophy laden two-year stint at Belgium’s Club Brugge.
The ex-Croatia midfielder said: “I would like to congratulate the players on the fighting spirit they showed from the beginning to the end of the game and they know very well what is required. I would also like to congratulate Kalba.
“The most important fact from the day is that we claimed all three points.”
The Boss next visit Al Wasl on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Al Jazira head coach Jurgen Streppel heaped praise on his players as they opened their top-flight campaign with a 2-0 victory over Al Dhafra.
In Thursday’s clash at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, Mohamed Al Attas opened the scoring in the first-half before Keno’s strike deep into stoppage time secured maximum points.
Streppel was happy with the result and was particularly pleased with his players’ control.
“To start the league with a win is very good. I was happy with how we controlled the first-half as we had a lot of possession and our hard work saw us take the lead,” said the Dutchman during his post-match press conference.
“We were excellent with our set-pieces and that was a big positive. As the match went on, we kept improving although Al Dhafra made it difficult.
“However, we scored again and I must say I was very happy to see our players earn the win.”
Fans also saw Omar Abdulrahman play for the first time after coming on as a second-half substitution while playmaker Khalfan Mubarak and young striker Zayed Al Ameri also came off the bench.
Streppel was happy to give both players minutes, but emphasised the victory was a team effort.
“Khalfan Mubarak, Omar Abdulrahman and Zayed Al Ameri played very well but everyone in the squad deserves credit following our performance today,” he said.
Jazira will aim to protect a 1-0 lead on Monday in the second leg of their Arab Club Champions Cup meeting with Oman’s Al Nasr Salalah.
Round 1 of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
There was a surprise hero for title-chasers Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club when they dispatched minnows Hatta, while a famous face enjoyed a vitalising start to management on the east coast when Fujairah down Al Wahda 1-0.
Here are Sport360°’s top picks and a talking point:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Yousif Jaber (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club)
Statistical anomalies defined an unforgettable 3-0 win for Jaber at promoted Hatta.
The versatile defender now has the record for most club appearances in UAE football since 2008/09’s dawn of professionalism. It is highly unlikely in any of the previous 274 that he got two assists and a goal.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Fawaz Awana (Bani Yas)
Awana exhibited the deftest of right-footed shots to get the scoring under way for the hosts in Thursday’s entertaining 2-2 draw with Ajman.
Awana, on loan to Al Wahda earlier this summer for Asian duty, was a picture of perfect technique when he drove onto a cut-back and curled into the far-left corner.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Madjid Bougherra (Fujairah)
What a start to the Algeria and Rangers legend’s senior managerial career in the league.
Hotly tipped Al Wahda were downed 1-0 thanks to a move in which an advancing left-back caused chaos.
There was also the exceptionally bold decision to hook midfielder Fernando Gabriel upon 55 minutes. Big calls – and a big opening result.
Changing face of UAE football
This term’s Under-21 registration loophole had a clear and telling impact.
A total of 15 non-Emirati kids started or came on. Only a handful met last season’s requirement of having a UAE-national mother.
Is this barefaced opportunism from the clubs that will severely hamper Emirati opportunities going forward, or will the UAE gain, hugely, in the long term through naturalisation? We shall see…
A rejuvenated field will begin attempts to dethrone shock champions Sharjah when the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League kicks off this weekend.
The King became the standout story from a decade of professionalism when they came from nowhere and stormed to a first top-flight title in 23 years. Now, comes the response.
None have been bolder than 2016/17 holders Al Jazira’s. Their returning of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman to the country after an unfulfilled year at Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal evidences unbridled ambition, while the likes of Al Ain and Al Wahda plan to be right in the chase this time.
Talent, however, can be found throughout a division that appears to have emphatically rebounded. There is also the wildcard provided by an injection of foreign youths facilitated by loopholes around new residency rules.
COME AT THE KING…
Anyone who contends they predicted a Sharjah title success at this point last year is either a liar, or rivals Nostradamus for prescience.
Abdulaziz Al Anbari’s men blew a necessary breeze of fresh air through a staid competition.
That they then last week proceeded to defeat 2019’s form side, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, on penalties with 10 men for 60 minutes of the Arabian Gulf Super Cup speaks volumes of their indefatigable spirit. It is six seasons since a club retained the title, but Sharjah will take some shifting.
Runners-up Shabab Al Ahli wrestled 2019 AFC Champions League top scorer Leonardo from third-placed Al Wahda, who have fresh direction from VVV-Venlo coach Maurice Steijn and emergent super-talent Yahya Al Ghassani.
Al Ain, the UAE’s most-decorated outfit, are now led by Belgium champion Ivan Leko and splashed €5.3 million on Al Wasl striker Caio Canedo. Then, there is Jazira…
The soap opera that engulfed Amoory was ended in eye-catching fashion last month.
Volatile talks about an extension at Hilal, ultimately, imploded. Claims and counter-claims about financial demands and the state of the knee seriously injured in October provide a cloud of uncertainty.
Have the Pride of Abu Dhabi added a living legend – eternally joined to nemesis Al Ain, for added schadenfreude – to a squad that contains prolific UAE striker Ali Mabkhout and incisive Pyramids FC loanee Keno? Or is he spent?
This situation should be 2019/20’s defining storyline.
ON THE REBOUND
A sense that the AGL had been left behind was palpable in summer 2018.
This is, distinctly, not the case now.
Sublime UAE prospects such as the aforementioned Al Ghassani, Al Jazira defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and Al Wahda No1 Mohamed Al Shamsi are the envy of Asia. Wahda striker Abdulla Anwar, 20, has five goals in three 2019/20 Arabian Gulf Cup clashes.
Al Ain’s Andrea Radovanovic, Shabab Al Ahli’s Ahmed Jashak and other non-unknown foreign Under-21s may also turn into familiar names.
Adroit foreign additions across the AGL include Sharjah predator Ricardo Gomes, Al Nasr’s Chile midfielder Esteban Pavez, Ittihad Kalba’s ex-Barcelona centre-back Henrique, promoted Khor Fakkan’s pocket-rocket Bismark and Bani Yas’ South Africa conductor Ayanda Patosi.
These complement existing stars like Nasr’s ex-Spain striker Alvaro Negredo and Kalba’s flying Hungary winger Balazs Dzsudzsak.