Round 6 of the 2019/20 Arabian Gulf League delivered several stellar displays, at both ends of the table.
A gripping draw between 10-man Al Ain and Al Jazira – played out in front of a sell-out crowd at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium – delivered plentiful drama, despite the lack of goals. Alvaro Negredo’s penalty for Al Nasr inflicted a fourth defeat on promoted Khor Fakkan, Manolo Jimenez’s Al Wahda revolution rolled on with a 3-1 victory against Al Dhafra and Al Wasl’s upturn continued with a 3-1 victory against Hatta.
Here are Sport360°’s top picks and a talking point:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Mohanad Salem (Al Ain)
A change of guard has been under way for the past year at Al Ain.
The backs-to-the-wall, 0-0 stalemate with Jazira, however, proved there is life in their dogs of war yet. Salem, 34, was a rock after the 13th-minute dismissal of centre-back usurper Mohammed Ali Shakir, ensuring Jazira’s star-studded attack could not strike.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Ali Salmeen (Al Wasl)
Hands up who thought UAE and Wasl anchor man Salmeen was capable of such a dynamic solo goal?
Think George Weah v Hellas Verona and – ex-Wasl boss – Diego Maradona v England, then slightly temper expectations. You’ll conjure the image of Salmeen blazing past several opponents from halfway, before firing home to seal a 3-1 win against Hatta.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Manolo Jimenez (Al Wahda)
Jimenez’s Wahda are going to be a lot of fun, judging by their early results.
The 3-1 triumph against Al Dhafra made it seven goals in two, winning matches under the ex-Sevilla, AEK Athens and Al Rayyan supremo. A brace for summer-buy – and fellow Spaniard – Carlitos also augers well for the future.
IF YOU BUILD IT UP, THEY WILL COME
More than 20,000 people were present for an enthralling ‘El Clasico’ that proved interest in the AGL is there, if appropriately tapped into.
Superb social media channels, expanded English commentary and raffle prizes evidence organisers, UAE Pro League, are doing their bit. They cannot, however, control the on-field product.
Jazira and Al Ain offered elite footballers and a strong narrative. The other clubs must utilise their resources just as efficaciously to make this gala night a more frequent sight.
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Round 6 of the Arabian Gulf League throws up some intriguing ties, but none as monumental as Friday night’s clash between behemoths Al Ain and Al Jazira at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
The game is the biggest in UAE football and both are desperate for a win to add fire to their early season title credentials.
Elsewhere, Sharjah will want to respond after dropping points for the first time last week, while Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club need a response after their first defeat.
Let’s look ahead to the weekend games in the AGL…
THE UAE’S BIGGEST GAME
It may not be the UAE version of El Clasico in name – Al Clasico belongs to the Al Ain v Al Wahda fixture – but Al Ain v Al Jazira is the true equivalent of Barcelona v Real Madrid in the Emirates.
The Arabian Gulf League’s two biggest teams duel in the desert on Friday night, bringing the curtain down on the Round 6 action. And when the dust has settled we will hopefully be basking in the glow of having been enthralled by the latest instalment of a frenzied and famous rivalry.
The Pride of Abu Dhabi were also the pride of this fixture a year ago as they gleaned wins home and away – the stunning 5-1 triumph in front of their own fans as excellent as it was endemic of the Boss’ fallow 2018/19 campaign.
This fixture is filled with a storied recent past. There was the full-blooded 3-1 win at the Hazza in January 2017, in which former Boss full-back Mohamed Fawzi scored the opener on his return to the Garden City with Jazira. His goal sparked a 3-1 win on their march to the title.
Then there was the 4-3 thriller from October 2014 in which all four Jazira goals were netted by outstanding former Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic.
This game usually delivers. Let’s hope it does once more on Friday.
HOW WILL SHARJAH REACT?
In the face of adversity, Sharjah fought and found a way to get something from the game. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes last Thursday, the King were wobbling to a first defeat of the season, their not so loyal subjects waiting in the wings to pounce on any mistake.
Except the big mistake came from Hatta. Waleed Hassan’s atrocious blind pass just outside his own area was intercepted by Igor Coronado and Coronado did what Coronado does – score. Still, it appeared a mere consolation. Yet 45 seconds later, Hatta failed to cut out a long ball and Coronado this time teed up Ricardo Gomes to poke in the equaliser. What drama.
This is what champions do. They react. Some thought, after lifting their first AGL crown in 23 last season, the King might be content.
But they seem hungrier than ever. Now, they face a Fujairah side hammered 7-1 at home by Al Ain last week. The Wolves should be wary.
In contrast to Sharjah, Shabab Al Ahli showed their deficiencies in a 1-0 loss at resurgent Al Nasr.
Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men finished last term strongly and had launched themselves into the title talk for this season. That was only strengthened following a fine start – three wins and a draw from their opening four games.
But while Sharjah willed themselves to a point from a near impossible situation against Hatta, Shabab Al Ahli failed to capitalise, going down to Alvaro Negredo’s acrobatic winner and seeing the talented, but hot-headed, Leonardo sent off.
To compound matters, Al Ain and Jazira wins saw them cede ground to them and lose ground on Sharjah.
Still, the Negredo goal was just one of two conceded this season. It is a blip, but they will want to bounce back this weekend. And hosting a spirited Ajman, who are only three points behind them, is far from straightforward.
CAN NASR CONTINUE TO RIDE THE BLUE WAVE?
In direct conflict to the Al Ain v Al Jazira clash, the biggest Dubai has to offer is Al Wasl v Al Nasr – the Bur Dubai Derby. Yet both combatants have flattered to deceive in recent seasons. In fact both finished closer to the relegation zone last year than they did the No1 spot.
Their travails in recent years is not what we’ve come to expect from two of the country’s most decorated clubs.
Wasl were thrown a lifeline last week with a maiden win of the term, lifting them off the bottom of the table. For Nasr, they are showing even more life, earning a 1-0 victory at home against title-chasing Shabab Al Ahli.
Fortunes have turned a corner it seems since Croat Krunoslav Jurcic was brought back to the UAE to replace Jan Versleijen, after working a miracle at Bani Yas.
Two wins have followed from his first two games in charge as an alarming slide has been arrested. A third against bottom of the table Khorfakkan could propel them into a title challenger.
Champions Sharjah remain top of the tree despite losing their 100 per cent start to the Arabian Gulf League season following a spirited fightback against Hatta.
Down 2-0 as the clock hit 90 minutes, the King crowned a magnificent comeback with two stoppage time goals to earn a 2-2 draw. Al Ain and Al Jazira took advantage of a slip from them and Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who lost 1-0 at Al Nasr, to go above and draw level with them respectively.
The Boss were in seventh heaven following a 7-1 thrashing of Fujairah, while the Pride of Abu Dhabi beat Ittihad Kalba 3-2.
Elsewhere, Al Wasl relieved the pressure on coach Laurențiu Reghecampf and moved off the bottom of the table with a 3-1 win at Al Dhafra.
Here are our Picks of the Week from round five:
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba (Al Ain)
Hard to argue with this award given the Togo striker struck four times in a 7-1 rout of Fujairah. The hosts actually took the lead through Brazilian forward Jhonnattann just before the break but Laba equalised and led the charge in the second half as the Wolves could not keep the Boss from the door.
He headed in from a corner for his first, swept home a low cross at the near post for number two and then squeezed in another cross from the right at Abdullah Al Tamim’s near post for the third. His hat-trick was neatly provided via a trio of Bandar Al Ahbabi assists (he had four on the night), and the 27-year-old sealed a big win when he back-heeled in Jamal Maroof’s goal-bound effort near the end.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Krunoslav Jurcic (Al Nasr)
The former Bani Yas boss masterminded a 1-0 defeat of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai – inflicting a maiden defeat of the season on one of the teams favourite for the AGL title.
It came in spectacular fashion too, a bicycle kick from former Manchester City and Valencia striker Alvaro Negredo. And it is a result that launches the Blue Wave into sixth place following back-to-back wins, having started the season poorly.
The 49-year-old Croatian has now navigated Nasr to two straight wins having returned to the UAE after orchestrating a revival for the Sky Blues during his 12 months in charge.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Welliton (Al Wasl)
It’s been a difficult start to the season for the Cheetahs, and a tough beginning in yellow for the former Sharjah and Al Nasr striker. But the Brazilian showed his class with a brace in a maiden win of the season for Wasl in the Western Region.
After Fabio De Lima opened the scoring, the veteran marksman made it 2-0 with a clinical finish across goalkeeper Khalid Al Senani after muscling a defender off the ball.
But he saved the best for last when he raced onto De Lima’s pass; little seemed on as he chased the ball down the right channel of the box, but with the ball running towards the byline he arrowed a sharp shot beyond Al Senani that clipped the post on its way in.
Expect an exciting title race
Every fan of AGL football should be intrigued by the opening few weeks of the season. It offers the possibility for a genuine title race, something that has incredibly not been witnessed since the debut of professionalism in UAE football, the 2008/09 campaign.
That year, Shabab Al Ahli – or just plain old Al Ahli as they were known back then – pipped Jazira to the AGL crown by a point, 55 points to 54. The closest we’ve come to a genuine contest since? Last year’s six-point gap between champions Sharjah and Shabab Al Ahli.
But this year, it really could be different. Sharjah are proving their first triumph in 23 years looks no fluke with a strong start to 2019/20, while Shabab Al Ahli were going well before a maiden defeat to Nasr last weekend.
Al Ain are much improved under Ivan Leko while Jazira are a bonafide contender with Marcel Keizer back in charge. Don’t rule out the chasing pack either. Al Wahda have the class to mount another challenge, while perhaps even Nasr, spearheaded by The Beast’s goals and shrewd Juric now at the helm, could figure.
Unfancied Ajman, Dhafra and Bani Yas will all also feel they shouldn’t be discounted. Whoever is crowned king this season, there’s a sense they’ll really have to earn it.