It marks the first time that the Boss have failed to emerge from the group stage in six years – ending their campaign on two points.
They did at least go down fighting though, with goalkeeper Khalid Essa particularly impressive. We take a look at the UAE shotstopper’s evening.
Buoyed by their recent 5-1 Arabian Gulf League thrashing of Al Wasl at home, the Boss – who took a giant step towards qualifying for next year’s ACL with that victory – started confidently at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.
They took the lead when impressive Bandar Al Ahbabi slipped in Marcus Berg, the Swede finishing with aplomb as he fired through Seyed Hosseini’s legs to make it 1-0 after 13 minutes, a first goal in seven games.
The lead lasted just nine minutes though, Mohammad Daneshgar leaping to head in Vouria Ghafouri’s corner. The away side got their noses in front in first half stoppage time when Morteza Tabrizi finished off a flowing passing move.
Both sides pushed for more goals in the second half but Esteghlal maintained their lead, with excellent Essa keeping the visitors at bay.
Got right – Keeping his side in it
The 29-year-old is the UAE’s No1 for reason. The Whites have deployed a number of custodians between the sticks in recent years, but Essa has been the most consistent of them all.
He could do little to prevent either of Esteghlal’s goals – a towering free header from Daneshgar and a sweetly-struck effort from Tabrizi – but what he could do, he was excellent.
He dived athletically to his left to palm away South African midfielder Ayanda Patosi’s penalty and made crucial late interventions to deny the visitors making the scoreline more emphatic.
Got wrong – Unnecessarily flash
There are plenty of talented stoppers in UAE football, but they have a tendency to try and capture the spectacular rather than play it safe. Essa is an adept catcher of the ball and a puncher, when required.
But there was an uncomfortable moment in the first half when he came to collect a cross and took to the air like Superman to clear it when he could have gathered easily.
Al Ain fans also had hearts in mouths when a sliced clearance from one of his own players could have been collected – yet he chose to chest the ball down and play out from the back. Essa was calmness personified and it looked stylish – but it was unnecessary.
A fine shot-stopper who is agile and comes confidently to claim crosses and provides a vocal presence, Essa has been a rock for the Boss for many years. But, in a season in which there has been very little to celebrate, the Al Jazira youth product’s qualities have shone through even more – because he’s been called on to bail his side out much more than previous years.
It mattered little here with his side already out, but Essa was excellent and his unrelenting thirst to keep Esteghlal at bay meant his side were always in the game.
Unstoppable Al Nassr centre forward Abderrazak Hamdallah and miracle-working Al Taawoun coach Pedro Emanuel reigned supreme at the 2018/19 Saudi Professional League Awards.
Hamdallah, 28, rocketed in a Kingdom record 34 goals in 26 top-flight appearances to fire his employers towards their first title since 2014/15. This stellar performance in a debut campaign for the ages saw him, predictably, honoured with the Best Player gong in Riyadh during the early hours of Sunday morning.
The Best Coach award was taken home by ex-Porto defender Emanuel. The 44-year-old – coveted by Al Ain – guided Taawoun to a remarkable third-placed finish and landed the grandest trophy of their 63-year history earlier this month with the King’s Cup.
His charge, Muteb Al Mofarij, emerged as the Best Young Saudi Player and imposing Al Hilal midfielder Mohamed Kanno earned the Best Saudi Player gong. Farouk Ben Mustapha, of Al Shabab and Tunisia, was named Best Goalkeeper.
2018/19 SPL AWARDS
Best Young Saudi Player: Muteb Al Mofarij (Al Taawoun, on loan from Al Hilal)
Best Saudi Player: Mohamed Kanno (Al Hilal)
Best Goalkeeper: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab)
Best Coach: Pedro Emanuel (Al Taawoun)
Best Player: Abderrazak Hamdallah (Al Taawoun)
Rui Vitoria has reflected warmly on the sizeable mid-season obstacles he cleared to guide Al Nassr to Saudi Professional League success.
The ex-Benfica coach’s charges came into Thursday’s final-day with a slender one-point lead over – then – reigning champions Al Hilal. But it would be the yellow half of Riyadh left to celebrate a first title since 2014/15 after a brace from Morocco predator Abderrazak Hamdallah earned a 2-1 win against relegated Al Batin at a raucous King Fahd International Stadium, making the Crescent’s 3-2 triumph against Al Shabab moot for their hopes.
“I went to Saudi Arabia to do my best, believing that it was possible to win, in a difficult context, mid-season, with a group that had not been prepared by us,” TVI24 were told by Vitoria, who inked an 18-month contract in January after time was called on a trophy laden four-year stint at Estadio da Luz.
“We ended up winning this championship and we were satisfied by that.
“It was hard work, initially with a three-point gap and then six. But we knew what we had to do.
“The special flavour is to win, wherever it is. I’m glad to have this title after four months in the country – this is very gratifying.”
There was also joy for managerless Al Ahli Jeddah when they crept into a play-off spot for the 2020 AFC Champions League in the last round.
Caretaker Yousef Anbar did his bit with a 5-0 thrashing of mid-table Ettifaq, in which Cape Verde striker Djaniny notched a hat-trick.
Shabab had begun the day in third, yet their defeat against Hilal sent them spinning down to fifth. Al Taawoun took their place in the top three with a 2-1 victory against Al Faisaly, though their claiming of the King’s Cup earlier this month meant their continental spot went down to fourth-placed Ahli.
At the bottom, Al Qadsiah were confirmed as the third-and-final automatically relegated outfit with a 2-2 draw at Al Hazem.
This outcome, however, had positive ramifications for Al Fayha. Their 5-2 beating of Al Wehda guaranteed them safety, plus painfully dropped Hazem into the relegation play-off.