Star-studded Sharjah regained the ADNOC Pro League’s lead in a hectic final round before another lengthy break which featured Miralem Pjanic’s dismissal, lost points for several heavyweights and late twists past the 100-minute mark.
Former Barcelona midfielder Pjanic’s 17th-minute red card for kicking out could not prevent The King from prevailing 2-0 at second-from-bottom Dibba Al-Fujairah, who reacted by dismissing head coach Gregory Dufrennes. Their ascension back to top spot was aided by mid-table Baniyas surprisingly snapping then-leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club’s six-match winning streak with a 2-1 away victory; and Al-Wahda being downed 1-0 by third-placed dark-horses Ajman, courtesy of Slovenia veteran Miral Samardzic’s 75th-minute header.
Holders Al-Ain recorded a third-successive draw in the 1-1 home stalemate with Al-Wasl, but UAE icon Ali Mabkhout’s hand in all three Al-Jazira goals was decisive in their hard-earned 3-2 triumph against bottom-placed Al-Dhafra.
Floundering heavyweights Al-Nasr remain deep in the relegation mire — and new boss Goran Tomic without top-flight victory in three attempts — after a rollercoaster 2-2 draw with promoted Al-Bataeh. Portuguese forward Aylton Boa Morte’s 102nd-minute rebound gave Khor Fakkan a dramatic 2-1 victory against Al-Ittihad Kalba.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and talking points from the latest action.
Player of the week — Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira)
Where there is Mabkhout, there is hope.
Al-Jazira have, largely, flattered to deceive since a dispiriting October checked enthusiasm generated by an electric start to the campaign and ambitious summer business headlined by Zamalek’s Morocco forward Achraf Bencharki.
Yet because of Mabkhout’s enduring lethality — his brace and assist moved him onto an unmatched 16-goal contribution — they have hung on in the title scrap, just three points off Sharjah in fifth.
This contest was a microcosm of their 2022/23 campaign. The competition’s leading pass makers registered 71 percent possession against lowly Dhafra, yet were indebted to a pair of Mabkhout set-pieces and an ingenious assist to Bencharki in a run-out from which they trailed after 24 minutes, plus conceded in the 94th minute to enact a nervous finish.
Ex-Ajax boss Marcel Keizer reflected on his charges’ lack of killer instinct post-match. But a concertina top six separated by only four points is emblematic of an inability of any side to, truly, grasp the title mettle.
A month-long stoppage for the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup provides opportunity for reflection, influential Serbia center back Milos Kosanovic to gain sharpness on the training pitch after serious injury and for potential forays into the winter transfer market.
Even Mabkhout’s inimitable attacking threat still requires solid foundations.
Goal of the week — Aylton Boa Morte (Khor Fakkan)
Goals of superior aesthetic quality were found in Nasr winger Omar Jumaa’s poised lob, Bencharki’s delicately crafted leveler for Al-Jazira and Ahmed Amer’s swirling, 35-yard free-kick for Kalba.
But matchweek 11’s grandest moment came almost half an hour post the aforementioned, 73rd-minute dead ball.
A stirring finale at Saqr bin Mohammad Al-Qassimi Stadium witnessed hosts Khor Fakkan net in the 90th and 102nd minutes to down Kalba.
Boa Morte — a relative of ex-Portugal, Arsenal and Fulham forward Luis — was in the right place to prod home Algeria midfielder Mehdi Abeid’s fumbled free-kick. Cue bedlam.
It was also the fifth goal of his increasingly impressive campaign and gave Khor Fakkan 10 points from the last available 15.
Abdulaziz Al-Anbari’s squad were slow out the starting blocks. But October’s hires of Abeid and Greece center midfielder Panagiotis Tachtsidis, plus the return of ceaseless Brazilian forward Ramon Lopes, have made all the difference.
Coach of the week — Daniel Isaila (Baniyas)
Shabab Al-Ahli appeared unstoppable.
This was unsurprising with Monaco’s Champions League-conductor Leonardo Jardim at the helm, a bedrock of UAE internationals and Belgium center back Jason Denayer anchoring their defense.
Recent scalps of Al-Jazira, Al-Ain and Al-Wasl added to this sense of inevitability. Their seventh seemed assured when experienced defender Walid Abbas opened the scoring early on at Rashid Stadium.
But Baniyas would be bold in the face of this gargantuan challenge. There was no retort from the celebrated hosts after Gaston Suarez and Suhail Al-Noubi struck in quick succession, just shy of the 30-minute mark.
Baniyas’ ex-Romania under-21 tactician Daniel Isaila saw his committed troops win the attempts count 14/11, despite seeing only 34 percent of the ball. A sizable 22 fouls showcased a determination to halt attacking threats at source, vital with wingers Yahya Al-Ghassani and Harib Abdalla devastating at full pelt.
Consistency is now key for the Sky Blues — 2020/21’s eye-raising runners-up last won consecutive league games in March.
More unavoidable checking of momentum
And now a juddering halt, after the briefest of restarts.
Just two matchweeks were sandwiched between the five-week cessation for World Cup 2022 and a month-long pause for January’s Gulf Cup.
Disruption which is heightened by the decision to take a full-strength squad to Iraq where The Whites will hunt for their first success in a decade.
World Cup entrants Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in contrast, have selected shadow squads. Their domestic leagues will play on throughout the month.
These are decisions both understandable and beyond the remit of the UAE Pro League.
Yet the unavoidable by-product is another loss of momentum at a juncture of genuine optimism.
Packed stands across the division were sparked by a dynamic summer recruitment drive, effective outreach programs and impactful coverage.
It will be intriguing to see what the coming weeks deliver.
A successful Gulf Cup for the UAE would propel the season into its second half, while further market moves cannot be discounted.
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