UAE Pro League review: Late goals boost Al-Ain and Al-Wasl

ADNOC Pro League title hopefuls Al-Ain and Al-Wasl were grateful for late goals, while defeat spelt doom for two head coaches, in an eventful matchweek nine.

Unstoppable Togo hit man Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba produced his leading 10th strike this term — plus, an inventive UAE Flag Day celebration — to complete champions Al-Ain’s 2-1, comeback victory against Khor Fakkan in the 80th minute.

Meanwhile, UAE forward Fabio De Lima converted a 100th-minute penalty in the round’s dramatic final act when Al-Wasl came from behind to down Ajman 2-1.

Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club’s 6-0 thumping of new boys Al-Bataeh brought an end to Caio Zanardi’s reign and former Bayern Munich midfielder Thorsten Fink was replaced at 12th-placed Al-Nasr by Goran Tomic after a 2-0 home loss against Al-Jazira.

Caio’s 87th-minute spot-kick pushed first-placed Sharjah past struggling Al-Dhafra 1-0 in returning boss Aleksandar Veselinovic’s second debut, Joao Pedro struck twice when Al-Wahda beat bottom-placed Dibba Al-Fujairah 3-0 in a match that finished with 10 men apiece, and dark horses Ittihad Kalba kept in the mix courtesy of their 2-1 downing of Baniyas.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and talking points from the latest action.

Player of the week — Harib Abdalla (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)

It took nine matchweeks, but the UAE’s brightest prospect has finally arrived for 2022-23.

Harib Abdalla was tipped for greatness from the moment he completed a sensational solo goal in September 2020’s AFC Champions League clash with Shahr Khodro. The teenager’s burgeoning reputation was further boosted by a nerveless winner against South Korea that ensured the UAE’s World Cup 2022 qualifying progression on the third round’s final day.

A star looked poised to turn into a supernova for this season, especially with Leonardo Jardim, a noted incubator of talent, hired by Shabab Al-Ahli.

However, reality had fallen well short of expectations. A disappointing return of zero goal contributions in eight, forgettable top-fight outings did not reflect the innate ability of a forward linked repeatedly with European suitors in pre-season.

That was before Friday’s visit to floundering Bataeh. Abdalla’s cute pass split the home defense for Igor Jesus’ opener, while his scoring instincts guaranteed he was in the right spot to tap in a rebound on the hour mark, and he sent experienced Portuguese center-back Artur Jorge flying with a flamboyant faked shot for his eye-catching second.

The 19-year-old has the potential to match the exploits of the preceding “golden” generation’s finest in Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout.

A standard has been set. Abdalla must ensure he meets it weekly.

Goal of the week — Fabio De Lima (Al-Wasl)

Al-Wasl cannot be accused of being boring.

Another epic contest turned in their favor deep into injury time. Their talisman, De Lima, was at the heart of things.

Zabeel Stadium, stung by the prior collapse on home soil to 2-2 against Kalba, held its breadth in the 94th minute when a handball was awarded against their former center-back Abdullah Al-Junaibi for an outstretched arm on the slide.

A lengthy pause for VAR checks only ramped up the tension. That is, seemingly, for everyone but De Lima.

The tranquil 29-year-old blocked out the noise and fired straight down the middle. That is now seven goals and three assists in eight run-outs, healing memories of a 2021-22 repeatedly derailed by serious injury.

How different the UAE’s qualifying playoff could have been against limited Australia if he had featured.

The Brazil-born attacker’s efforts are helping Al-Wasl cling on in fourth.

With inconsistent Baniyas up next, and their direct rivals facing exacting fixtures, Juan Antonio Pizzi’s entertainers could yet top the table headed into the five-week international break.

Coach of the week — Aleksandar Veselinovic (Al-Dhafra)

Defeat for Al-Dhafra, but one imbued with hope about better days to come.

The Western Knights, belatedly, lived up to their nickname in a combative clash with star-studded Sharjah. Only Khalid Al-Darmaki’s late foul denied them a morale-lifting point.

A key influence on this sturdier display came from the touchline.

Nebojsa Vignjevic departed in the wake of 5-0 defeat to Baniyas. This humbling granted them a ruinous return of 27 goals conceded in eight games.

An emergency call was made to Veselinovic. The 52-year-old oversaw 12 league matches in 2020-21, returning 15 points — an average that, if replicated, should comfortably ensure safety.

His new troops responded positively. Their season-high 16 fouls disrupted Sharjah’s momentum, with center-backs Claudio and Leonard Amesimeku producing essential goal-line clearances.

Winger Mohamed Rayhi exemplified this dogged approach with three interceptions, one clearance and a 100 percent tackle success rate.

Dhafra remain mired in relegation worries for the third-successive season. But victory over Khor Fakkan could see them claw out of the drop zone.

Blockbuster matchweek 10 is perfectly poised

A season that promised so much is set for a grandstand finale, heading into World Cup 2022’s sizeable stoppage.

From a top seven within three points of each other, Jazira and Wahda meet on Friday, with no love lost between the Abu Dhabi neighbors.

This is followed a day later by the consequential clash between leaders Sharjah and holders Al-Ain. Heavy hitters abound on the pitch, with Paco Alcacer, Kostas Manolas and Miralem Pjanic battling against Laba, Soufiane Rahimi and Andriy Yarmolenko.

The derby between Shabab Al-Ahli and Nasr is given greater intrigue by the presence of Tomic in the visitor’s dugout. The 45-year-old was named the Croatian top flight’s manager of the year for 2021-22 when leading Rijeka to fourth.

There is even a tantalising clash between last season’s top two from First Division League, when winless Dibba welcome managerless Bataeh.

What a fitting way to stand down.

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