Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic could not have been blamed for expecting the worst.
Already robbed of, arguably, Asia’s finest player of 2016 Omar Abdulrahman’s services through suspension and with a pair of defenders joining UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa in the treatment room before the half-hour mark, substitute Rashed Hassan’s late leveller against the run of play for 10-man Al Shabab fit a frustrating script perfectly.
More drained points in the Arabian Gulf League after last week’s embarrassing capitulation during the 2-2 draw at lowly Dibba Al Fujairah seemed certain, only for veteran midfielder Ibrahim Diaky to follow in with virtually the last kick of the game to seal a grandstand 2-1 win.
“Hamdullah, we scored in the last minute,” said a beaming Dalic. “We really deserved to win this game.
“We had many problems tonight, changed two players by 20 minutes, changed the system, changed everything.
“We had many chances, but one shot on our goal and it is 1-1. Most important is three points and I really am so happy.”
For high-flying Shabab, the first top-flight defeat suffered under inspirational Dutchman Fred Rutten should count as a missed opportunity. They created far too little against depleted opponents bar Tomas De Vincenti’s threatening shot at the end of the first-half, with the suspension for influential defensive midfielder Hassan Ibrahim set to add further pain.
“I don’t think we really got into the game,” said a downcast Rutten. “One team deserved to win.
“We had hoped we could steal a point at 1-1. But our opponents really were much better than us.”
The 2016 AFC Champions League final-contesting hosts had muddled their way through an opening period which featured more action from the medics than in the penalty boxes.
UAE boss Mahdi Ali would have winced as veteran centre-back Ismail Ahmed trudged off following a collision with Moldova forward Henrique Luvannor, with reserve right-back Fawzi Fayez soon joining him in the treatment room.
The best chances were saved for the final throes. Argentine playmaker De Vincenti forced a sharp low save from Essa’s stand-in Mohamed Busanda, while Brazilian striker Douglas was smothered at the other end when an opportunity dropped kindly to him.
Something special was needed to force the opener and forward Caio supplied it immediately after the interval. A roll of the ball onto his favoured right foot from Douglas’ cut back granted him the space to blast far beyond Salem Abdulla’s reach for a seventh goal in 12 games since being bought from Japan’s Kashima Antlers in July.
Ibrahim was then to head down the tunnel for a bruising late tackle which forced fellow UAE star Amer Abdulrahman off the field.
Yet from adversity, the Hawks soared. They had held champions Al Ahli at arm’s length in the preceding goalless draw and from nowhere substitute Hassan lashed home from 30 yards.
They should have held on for another affirming point against the heavyweights.
This didn’t count for Diaky’s wiles, his instincts to chase stand-in right-back and fellow replacement Bandar Al Ahbabi’s repelled cross deep into injury time earning a key victory which spoke volumes about the character of the squad.
Long-term target Dan Petrescu has emerged as the early favourite to replace Ivan Jovanovic should Al Nasr decide to dismiss their floundering coach.
Preliminary talks are set to be intensified with the unemployed ex-Romania and Chelsea right-back after Al Ain inflicted a third-successive defeat in the Arabian Gulf League on Sunday.
This result continued an abominable start to 2016/17, which has seen them suffer six losses from 10 matches – with the forfeit following Wanderley’s passport scandal from the AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg at Qatar’s El Jaish included – in all competitions.
Results have become so intolerable during Jovanovic’s fourth season at the helm that a change could even be made before Friday’s trip to fellow crisis side Al Wahda, who are also strongly considering ditching Mexican supremo Javier Aguirre.
Petrescu, 48, was close to accepting a switch to Al Maktoum Stadium in June 2013 before the current incumbent was hired, but a ¤12 million (Dh60m) release clause in his contract at Dynamo Moscow prevented it going through.
The well-travelled boss – who led Qatar’s Al Arabi from June-December 2014 – is available for work after a second spell at Russia’s Kuban Krasnodar ended by mutual consent after poor results on October 4.
For his part, Jovanovic remained upbeat after the tight 2-1 reversal to Al Ain saw his side sit ninth.
He said: “We’ve had bad results in the last games in the league, but I cannot lose my faith in my players – I believe in them always.
“Of course, with what happened in the Champions League, these two months something is there, but this is not an excuse. We’ve a good team and we need to show something better.”
If Jovanovic is to exit, he bids farewell to Nasr after a mixed stint. He ended a 25-year trophy drought with the 2014 GCC Club Cup during his debut campaign, adding the Arabian Gulf Cup and President’s Cup-double a year later.
Yet his team has failed to excel in the top flight, last term’s fourth place their highest finish under him. The current campaign promised so much when Wanderley hit a double in August 24’s 3-0 triumph in Doha, but has gone into a tailspin since the Brazil-born striker’s Indonesian documentation was ruled “forged or falsified” a week later.
Jovanovic is considered a leading contender to replace UAE boss Mahdi Ali if a poor result in November 15’s World Cup 2018 qualifier against Iraq sees him sacked.
Exasperated 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil is considering making an exit from Al Ahli after they failed to instigate official talks to renew his rapidly-expiring contract, with teams from Europe and the Arabian Gulf League monitoring the situation.
Khalil, 25, has just nine months left on the deal which ties him to his boyhood club.
Repeat overtures to extend have been met with a non-committal response from the Red Knights hierarchy. They have also forced the star – who has struck 110 times for them in 227 games since his 2006 debut – to further question his future by signing fellow striker Asamoah Gyan plus taking the captain’s armband from him and bestowing it to Lima.
This attitude has dumbfounded the player, who made history last year by becoming the first Emirati to be named the continent’s finest after performing a pivotal role in the run to the 2015 AFC Champions League final.
His glittering form for club and country has not gone unnoticed elsewhere, with a long list of admirers forming ahead of a potential free transfer next summer. These include bitter rivals Al Ain and Al Jazira in the UAE.
But most intriguing for Khalil is the lengthy list of foreign suitors. Interest abroad has come from the La Liga trio of Deportivo La Coruna, Granada and Espanyol – where ex-Ahli boss Quique Sanchez Flores is in situ.
Serie A’s Fiorentina and Primeira Liga giants Benfica have also expressed a desire to recruit Khalil, who is fascinated by the prospect of becoming the first footballer from the UAE to secure a permanent move to a major European competition.
The forward, who with 14 goals is joint-top scorer in the AFC World Cup qualifying process for Russia 2018, is prepared to consider making a financial sacrifice to force through any groundbreaking move to football’s traditional heartland. He also feels that he is now at the optimum age to head west.
Despite this desire, the option of remaining at Rashid Stadium has not been excluded. It is only the expressed attitude to delay potential discussions until early 2017 that has made him feel unwanted.
Reports in the Arabic press that a demand has been made to be paid Dh21 million per annum are incorrect. But if he was to sign up once again, his elite standing with the national team necessitates remuneration in line with the likes of Al Ain icon Omar Abdulrahman and Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout would need to be offered.
Khalil has won three AGL titles at Ahli, plus a pair of President’s Cups and Arabian Gulf Cups.