Al Ain rounded off a tremendous 2015 with a win, but they were made to fight for it at Emirates Club. The champions and Arabian Gulf League leaders showed their invaluable ability to grind out victories last night, with centre-back Ismail Ahmed popping up in the 76th minute to head home the only goal.
As his team-mates swamped the towering UAE international, a sense of relief was palpable after sinking opponents who now possess a six-match losing run.
Superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman was again a pivotal figure, a fine display full of invention culminating with his floating corner which teased Falcons goalkeeper Ali Saqr into a calamitious rush off the line.
A healthy 10 points is the margin to likeliest challengers Al Ahli, in third. The defeated 2015 AFC Champions League finalists possess three games in hand, yet they have been unable to demonstrate a similarly ruthless streak.
The figures for Zlatko Dalic’s men in the top flight across the year are daunting for the chasing pack. They have won 21 out of their 27 games, scored 59 goals at the cost of just 17 conceded and achieved four points more with 34 at the halfway stage than the figure registered during last term’s march to the crown.
Factor in the continued success despite the summer sale of talisman Asamoah Gyan and imminent chance to improve an already fine squad in the winter market, which opens on December 31, and their position is even more formidable.
Al Ain certainly didn’t have it all their own way at Emirates Stadium. An excellent block from UAE centre-back Mohanad Salem prevented home forward Mohamed Malalla from converting playmaker Brett Holman’s excellent pass, with only a weak header from centre forward Emmanuel Emenike – Gyan’s unconvincing replacement – threatening at the other end.
After the break, UAE No. 1 Khalid Essa saved with his legs to deny Falcons forward Rodrigo Pimpao.
Last week’s narrow 2-1 win against Fujairah scripted midfielder Lee Myung-joo as the unlikely saviour. This time, Ahmed rose highest to nod in a defining effort.
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