Such was Al Ain’s strength last term, they cruised to the Arabian Gulf League-title without both their attacking inspiration and major source of goals.
Star duo Omar Abdulrahman and Asamoah Gyan cut periphery figures, a frustrating series of injuries seeing them start less than half of the top-flight matches. Ominously, the other 13 sides could not get near them.
The latter is currently still picking up muscle complaints at new club Shanghai SIPG. But the same cannot be said of his celebrated former team-mate or replacement Emmanuel Emenike.
The pair were in awe-inspiring form against Al Wasl Sunday, Abdulrahman pulling the strings as the Nigeria striker struck his second brace in two starts during an impressive win at Al Wasl.
“We had full control of the game,” visiting boss Zlatko Dalic said.
“We played the best football. It was important Emenike scored two goals.
“We knew Wasl are a strong team, who beat Al Jazira last time. But we gave them nothing.”
‘Amoory’ has been nothing short of sensational in the early weeks of 2015/16. Asia’s standout playmaker has looked back to his ebullient best, getting two assists in the AGL-opening victory against Al Dhafra and six more in the UAE’s recent 10-0 dismantling of Malaysia.
His unique turns and testing range of passes meant the Cheetahs – who returned from hotly-tipped Jazira with a 2-1 win in the opening round – could not get anywhere near the 23-year-old.
Dalic declared his incredible No10 can “do even better” in the months ahead.
He said: “Last season, we couldn’t use Omar in many important games. Inshallah, he will be ready and he is going to be back to his best.
“He is in good form but he can do even better. He is the best player in the league, one pass and we score a goal – I must push him and support him.”
Abdulrahman played a central role in a first half which featured two glaring misses from Ryan Babel. The Netherlands new boy has not hit the ground running like midfielder Fellipe Bastos or Emenike, also courting controversy off the pitch with a series of tweets.
A simple header should have been converted on seven minutes, while he could not find a gap past Rashed Ali when played through by Abdulrahman soon after.
The opener finally arrived shortly after the interval. ‘Amoory’ – who else – derived the perfect pass with the outside of his foot from deep to play in on-rushing right-back Mohamed Ahmed, an excellent low cross picking out Emenike to tap home.
The 28-year-old has struggled with fitness troubles of his own, a muscle complaint picked up while scoring a pair in the Arabian Gulf Super Cup-success against Al Nasr seeing him miss out for the Boss since.
The Fenerbahce loanee looked in fine condition on 64 minutes as he sealed the points in eye-catching fashion, a swivel and instant short from 25 yards producing an unstoppable second.
Wasl came crashing down to earth after the highs of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the continuing absence of forward Caio Canedo as he awaits a Timor-Leste passport damaging.
“Al Ain are the best team in the league,” coach Gabriel Calderon said. “We had two or three injuries and one foreigner out.
“Inshallah, Caio will be ready to play soon. When he will play, it will be very good for us.”
With first-choice UAE centre-backs Mohanad Salem and Ismail Ahmed redoubtable in defence, Al Ain closed out the match with ease against solid opposition. They will take some catching.
Chile maestro Jorge Valdivia’s second spell in the Arabian Gulf League could get under way when Al Wahda host Al Shabab.
Valdivia, 31, has been forced to wait for his debut after only being able to join up with his new team-mates after his contract at Palmeiras expired on August 17.
The subsequent international break – in which he started La Roja’s 3-2 friendly win against Paraguay – delayed the process further.
Speaking before the visit of their top-four rivals, Clarets boss Javier Aguirre declared the participation of the celebrated former Al Ain playmaker will be decided by how he performs in training.
He said: “All matches are tough, regardless of the opponent. We cannot underestimate the importance of any opponent.
“The levels are close between all the teams and we deal with each match like it is a final.
“There are no absences except for Adel Abdullah, who will miss the next four months after suffering a fracture of the ankle. The participation of Valdivia will be determined during the workouts leading up to the game.”
Valdivia starred for the Boss from 2008-10, winning the 2008/09 President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup double.
Meanwhile, Al Ain boss Zlatko Dalic has declared the exertions of his sizeable international contingent have handed an advantage to Al Wasl.
The top-flight champions had 13 players away with various national sides, including the eight involved in the UAE’s pair of 2018 World Cup qualifiers and friendly win
The Cheetahs have no such worries and come into tonight’s match boosted by their 2-1 opening triumph at hotly-tipped Al Jazira.
“Al Wasl showed a good level in the first round against Al Jazira,” Dalic said. “In the last 20 days, they have been able to prepare at full strength unlike Al Ain – I missed the efforts of 13 players.”
He is likely to be without right-back Mohammed Fawzi, who was injured during the 10-0 demolition of Malaysia. But striker Emmanuel Emenike should return from injury after he featured in Nigeria’s 2-0 friendly win against Niger.
Playmaker’s Luis Jimenez’s dream start to his Al Nasr career continued as he grabbed his second-successive brace in a 3-1 Arabian Gulf League win at Al Dhafra.
Jimenez, 31, proved the difference at Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan Stadium as his double ensured the Blue Wave made it a perfect six points from their opening two matches.
They were made to fight for it against the winless Western Knights, who competed strongly throughout.
It was Nasr who went ahead in the 19th minute, a dangerous cross from Jires Kembo Ekoko being turned into his own net by despairing defender Khaleel Abdulla Alali.
The summer buy from Al Ain was soon involved in his own half, hacking down Abdulraheem Juma to concede a penalty striker Makhete Diop converted expertly.
Ivan Jovanovic’s men then exhibited their ability to turn last term’s President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup double into a title charge, Jimenez at the forefront.
Kembo Ekoko again provided the inspiration to make it 2-1, a perfect cross being lofted in by the Chile star who arrived at Al Maktoum Stadium in July on a free transfer after four glorious years at Al Ahli.
Laurent Banide’s host had two goals ruled out before the break as they fought for parity, the first for a foul on goalkeeper Ahmed Shambieh then for offside.
Nasr went on to seal the three points just past the hour mark, Jimenez moving onto four goals from two top-flight matches as he smashed in via centre-back Ahmad Ibrahim’s leg following smart work from winger Jonathan Pitroipa.
Meanwhile, Fujairah exorcised the demons of their opening-day humiliation at Al Ahli by easing to a 3-0 triumph against newly-
promoted Al Shaab.
The Wolves had gotten of to the worst start imaginable in 2015/16, being thrashed 8-1 at Al Ahli. But there was never any chance of a
repeat at Fujairah Stadium.
The unfortunate Fahad Sabil broke in the deadlock on 44 minutes, putting into his own net.
Defender Madjid Bougherra tapped in after the break, striker Patrick Eze then completing the rout with a bullet header on 72 minutes.