Al Nasr and Shabab Al Ahli give exciting sign of things to come in pulsating AG Cup final

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(UAE Pro League).

Former Spain striker Alvaro Negredo struck the fastest goal in Arabian Gulf Cup history and propelled Al Nasr towards a hard-fought 2-1 victory in Friday’s sold-out final against neighbours Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.

Ex-Portugal playmaker Toze would prove to be the key performer in the showpiece at a pulsating Zabeel Stadium. He first pivoted on the half-way line from kick-off and lobbed an inventive, inch-perfect pass down the middle, Negredo latching onto it and slotting through goalkeeper Majed Nasser’s legs after just six seconds.

A quick response from the hotly favoured holders and Arabian Gulf League leaders came in the 13th minute when on-loan Deportivo La Coruna winger Fede Cartabia’s testing set-piece was flicked home by evergreen UAE defender Yousef Jaber’s forehead. An engaging contest would then be decided in the 50th minute when Shabab Al Ahli failed to clear their lines, Toze punishing them with a drilled low finish.

The Blue Wave would stand firm – even amid the late dismissal of impassioned boss Krunoslav Jurcic – and ended their five-year trophy wait. Their vaunted opponents, however, must reflect on another gala defeat to follow September’s Arabian Gulf Super Cup reversal.

Here are the talking points:

SIGNPOST FOR THE SEASON

UAE football fans are in for a treat in the remaining months of this season.

Shabab Al Ahli and Nasr sandwich top-flight champions Sharjah in the standings, yet it is the Dubai sides who remain in form. The weekend’s decider just added ballast to the theory that they are the, true, class of the field.

In the blue corner, man-of-the-match Negredo was a talisman, Toze continued a notable upturn in form – he assisted or scored their last five goals in the competition – and teenage Brazilian centre-back Glauber is a gem.

Shabab Al Ahli will, though, point to the fact they dominated possession (58 per cent/42 per cent) and attempts (15/seven) and hit the base of the post through Moldova substitute Henrique Luvannor. Stand-out UAE stars Ahmed Khalil and Majed Hassan, also, watched on injured from the stands plus new addition Pedro Conde barely had time to integrate.

Nasr will revel in this moment – and rightly so. A ‘sleeping giant’ has been awoken in 15, largely wonderful, matches under ex-Croatia midfielder Jurcic.

The galvanising effect one person can have on an institution remains one of the sport’s great forces.

They still trail in the table. Can this evening now catalyse a remarkable title charge that can end their, unfathomable, 34-year drought?

CONDE CAN’T DO IT ALL ON HIS OWN

Few in the annals of football have experienced a build-up to a final that could match Conde’s.

In the space of little more than 24 hours, he’d gone from Bani Yas player to first-half substitute for fresh employers Shabab Al Ahli.

Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s men believe they’ve added the top gun that, previously, prevented them being the AGL’s complete package.

Conde’s 23 goals in 31 matches last term for promoted Bani Yas point to a predator of rare talent. So, too, his deft swivel and turn moments after coming on which provided on-rushing midfielder Abdullah Al Naqbi with a presentable chance.

His disappearance from view into the second half both reflected his unique signing and an inability to get bodies around the new man. The 31-year-old had zero attempts and made just 20 touches.

This is where injury to live-wire Brazilian forward Leonardo, the attacker he replaced, becomes paramount. A lifeline was snapped without him.

It is not easy to effectively substitute someone with three assists and six goals in the 2019/20 AGL.

The heavy strapping on Leonardo’s ankle and limp to the team bus post-match is another worry headed into Friday’s summit top-flight resumption versus Sharjah.

SHABAB AL AHLI LOSING THEIR NERVE?

It could appear churlish to question a side that lifted the President’s Cup and AG Cup double in 2018/19, plus held a 12-match unbeaten streak.

In 2019/20, however, Shabab Al Ahli have lost both the AG Super Cup versus 10-man Sharjah and AG Cup when heavily fancied.

Is this a mentality attitude from the players, or one from boss Arruabarrena? Or is too much being read into specific fixtures, when the overall picture appears so rosy?

These questions will be answered in the, enthralling, months ahead.

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