UAE Pro League: Shabab Al-Ahli soar as league action returns following World Cup break
The ADNOC Pro League burst back into life after the World Cup 2022 break when Leonardo Jardim’s relentless Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club continued their title push, holders Al-Ain stumbled once again and promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah tasted victory for the first time in 11 attempts.
Brazilian talent Igor Jesus’ astounding half-volley saw leaders Shabab Al-Ahli earn a 2-1, come-from-behind win at dark-horses Al-Wasl, amid a raucous atmosphere. There was also unbridled joy for Dibba — and more misery for fallen giants Al-Nasr — when Ibrahim Saeed emphatically punished a defensive error for the only goal at a crestfallen Al-Maktoum Stadium.
Prolific Al-Ain hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba’s second-half penalty, meanwhile, was required to salvage a 2-2 home draw with 12th-placed Baniyas, pushing the champions seven points off the pace in seventh. Former Barcelona superstar Miralem Pjanic was among the scorers when third-placed Sharjah thumped 10-men Al-Ittihad Kalba 4-0 and a roller coaster finale at second-placed Al-Wahda witnessed them draw 2-2 versus mid-table Khor Fakkan, despite the hosts trailing 1-0 up to the 89th minute and leading 2-1 by the 96th minute.
UAE record marksman Ali Mabkhout’s brace and an astonishing “Olimpico” goal direct from a corner by beguiling playmaker Khalfan Mubarak featured in 2020/21 victors Al-Jazira’s entertaining 4-2 triumph at new boys Al-Bataeh, and Tunisia schemer Firas Ben Larbi’s late penalty moved Ajman up to fifth, courtesy of a slender 1-0 win at now-bottom-placed Al-Dhafra.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week — Miralem Pjanic (Sharjah)
There have been tougher tests in Pjanic’s esteemed career.
Yet the accomplished way he navigated Tuesday’s annihilation of Kalba, hamstrung by hot-headed defender Mohammed Rabii’s 25th-minute dismissal, evidenced why the King were prepared to go to such great lengths and bring him in.
The 32-year-old’s perfect dead-ball — a trademark skill — crafted Ousmane Camara’s headed opener. He was heavily involved in Luanzinho’s second and showcased sharp goal-scoring instincts to be astutely positioned to slot home Sharjah’s third.
An impressive 71 of 79 passes were completed, three key passes produced and no fouls conceded. This was consummate control.
Sharjah have often failed to represent their collective might, dropping points in three out of four fixtures from match weeks five to eight and even making intolerably hard work of doomed-looking Dhafra.
Questions have been asked of the Bosnia and Herzegovina metronome’s enduring ability to influence proceedings. They were heightened pre-match when news broke of Greece centerback Kostas Manolas and Spain predator Paco Alcacer’s absences.
Rarefied performances like this provide a positive retort.
Goal of the week — Igor Jesus (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)
It took something exceedingly special to edge out Jazira artist Mubarak’s strike.
This is exactly what Jesus delivered at Zabeel Stadium. That it also came with an ominous message for Shabab Al-Ahli’s challengers added greater resonance.
The highly rated 21-year-old almost broke Wasl goalkeeper Khaled Al Senani’s net when he unleashed a half-volley at hyper speed, under pressure by several markers, from the edge of the penalty box.
His 20th-minute clincher was packed with subtext. It provided Dubai derby cheer, an instant salve to ADIB Cup quarterfinal elimination by Jazira, downed an ADNOC Pro League title rival, secured a two-point advantage, and made it six top-flight wins in a row and three-consecutive top-flight scoring displays by an attacking prospect recovering from a serious knee injury which made 2021/22 a virtual washout.
Jesus’ hot streak is the most pertinent.
Summer hire Jardim’s stellar reputation earned at Al-Hilal and Monaco was unquestionable. An already stacked squad was impressively bolstered by Belgium centerback Jason Denayer and 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khribin.
But there appeared no obvious plunderer of goals with Jesus’ recovery unknown. The Brazilian — linked to Everton and Galatasaray after 2020/21’s auspicious debut campaign in Dubai — is showing he can be the attacking spark which ignites a first successful title charge since 2017’s merger.
Coach of the week — Gregory Dufrennes (Dibba Al-Fujairah)
An opening win of vast strategic importance was masterminded by Dibba tactician Gregory Dufrennes.
The Frenchman knew a 10th defeat of the campaign in this “relegation six-pointer” could not be countenanced. It is where the value became apparent of the five-man defense trialled in ADIB Cup and President’s Cup ties, during the five-week league stoppage.
Nasr could not find a way through the new system, with their spiky visitors’ first clean sheet of the season setting a platform for valuable victory once Amran Al-Jassasi erred and Saeed struck.
The bottom three of Nasr, Dibba and Dhafra have found themselves cast adrift, with the 13th and 14th-placed clubs eventually falling into First Division League. Only two points now separates this floundering trio after a consequential match week 11 meeting.
Mubarak’s timely return to action
A sense of wonder has returned to the UAE and Jazira’s attacks thanks to the timely rehabilitation of Mubarak.
Monday’s first league start since September 2021 began with a fifth-minute assist for Mabkhout. It was then highlighted by an impudent strike from a corner just before the opening stanza concluded.
Gasps of adulation provided reminder of a unique, yet often-fragile, creator.
Injury had significantly hampered his club’s 2021/22 title defense, plus restricted him to just three qualifying run-outs when his nation went agonizingly close to reaching the World Cup.
The 27-year-old provides a significant boost to both parties.
Jazira remain within striking distance in the top flight. The UAE, unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are expected to take a strong squad to Iraq for next month’s 25th Arabian Gulf Cup.
Mubarak’s magical presence could be defining.
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