Fans of UAE football will have observed with curiosity the fading continental fortunes of one creaking giant, and the waking from a deep slumber of another behemoth, this year.
Al Ain – record 13-time winners of the Arabian Gulf League and the only team from the Emirates to taste AFC Champions League glory – brought the curtain down on a sorry 2019 continental campaign on Monday night, following a 2-1 home defeat to Esteghlal.
Of course, their 2019 Asia ambitions officially ended in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago when they were defeated 2-0 by powerhouses Al Hilal.
The following evening, compatriots Al Wahda laid to rest the ghost of tournaments past when they booked their ticket to the knockout stages with a 3-1 triumph over Uzbekistan’s Lokomotiv Tashkent in Abu Dhabi – it will be their first trip beyond the group phase in 12 years.
On that occasion, in 2007, the Clarets – for whom now iconic UAE forward Ismail Matar was just a 23-year-old bright-eyed star in the making – went all the way to the semi-finals.
Now with a deeply talented squad – and led by enigmatic Dutchman Henk ten Cate – the in-form capital city club should be considered dark horses for a deep run on the continent.
They have proven, yet again, they don’t possess the consistency required to win a league title over a full season. For so often in recent years, the AGL title has seemed Wahda’s holy grail. Not since 2009/10 have the Clarets hoisted the trophy.
But with a stacked arsenal of attacking options, Ten Cate’s troops have been a fearsome cup team in recent years – gluttonously hoovering up 2016/17’s President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup double, with the latter being lifted again in 2017/18.
The Clarets are the top scorers in the ACL group stages with 14 and finished top of Group B with 13 points following Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Al Ittihad in Jeddah.
Veteran Argentine strike Sebastian Tagliabue became the AGL’s leading foreign goalscorer of all time this season and could yet surpass his highest league tally of 28 (he currently leads the charts on 26).
Brazilian forward Leonardo has been a sensation since arriving on a free transfer from Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli Jeddah last summer – notching 24 goals in 31 appearances. Eight of those have come in five Champions League outings and he is the tournament’s leading scorer.
Effervescent Tanzania talent Yahya Al Ghassani has shown flashes of brilliance too while Wahda’s young yet experienced core also includes goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi and versatile defenders Ahmed Rashid and Khaled Ibrahim (all 22).
Mohamed Al Hammadi (22), Tahnoon Al Zaabi (20) and Mansor Al Harbi (19) have emerged this season and played significant roles.
As they are on the rise in Asia, passing them by on a drastic slide down are Al Ain. The Boss left the building on Monday and their continental woes are a microcosm for a largely pitiful campaign in general.
Juan Carlos Garrido’s side went winless in six games, two points a paltry return for a team that reached the ACL final just three years ago and also featured in the quarters and semi-finals in the previous five years.
Their capitulation in recent months at home and abroad – they won just once during a 12-match run spanning February 28-May 6 – had led to them being alarmingly jettisoned out of both the AGL title race and the 2020 Champions League picture.
They have at least arrested this slide in recent weeks – back-to-back wins in the AGL putting them back into third and prime spot for one of the remaining two ACL spots. Third and fourth will enter the ACL qualifiers as Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, guaranteed to finish runners-up behind Sharjah, have already gained Champions League entry via their President’s Cup triumph.
The Boss, therefore, look likely to stave off what would be an embarrassing first failure to reach the Champions League in eight years.
Not since 2012 has the competition not counted the Boss among its 32 starting combatants. The last time they failed to get beyond the group stage was 2013.
Then again, even if they do make it, they’re still vulnerable. A daunting trip to the capital to take on Wahda – three points behind and with a superior goal difference – awaits in their final league game on Saturday, while Al Jazira are a point behind in fourth and go to ninth-placed Al Nasr.
Even if they achieve their aim, the most testing of summers awaits. Garrido – if he remains in charge – and club brass have some major issues to thrash out. Sweden striker Marcus Berg is likely to leave while livewire Brazilian Caio is heading to Portuguese giants and Primeira Liga champions Benfica.
Wahda’s faith in youth – something championed by Ten Cate during his Jazira revolution – proves they are moving with the times, while Al Ain remain anchored in defence by Ismail Ahmed (35) and Mohanad Salem (34), steadfastly refusing to change.
Too many weeds have been allowed to grow in the Garden City. If they are not cut away, the Boss could be stuck in the shade of taller trees for some time.
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)