UAE Pro League: Al-Wasl bounce back to answer doubters

Leaders Al-Wasl produced a champions’ response to adversity and bottom-placed Hatta’s season spiralled at the same time as Emirates Club’s received new hope in ADNOC Pro League’s enthralling matchweek 16.

The Cheetahs’ credentials were questioned last week when Al-Wahda inflicted on them a first defeat in all competitions this season, a 4-0 ADIB Cup semifinal, second-leg reversal. Doubts about whether this alarming setback would quell their quest to end a 17-year wait for top-flight glory were resoundingly answered before the international break at Baniyas; goals from UAE forward Fabio De Lima and Switzerland veteran Haris Seferovic earning a 2-0 triumph. Al-Wasl lead the table by eight points.

Contrasting fortunes were witnessed by the promoted bottom two, with Hatta sliding into 14th after Wahda’s 4-0 thrashing, which terminated Fabio Viviani’s troubled six-month reign and 13th-placed Emirates encouragingly prevailing 2-1 against Khor Fakkan.

Former Fulham forwards Neeskens Kebano and Aboubakar Kamara, meanwhile, combined to salvage Al-Jazira’s 50th-anniversary celebrations in a gala 2-2 draw with Ittihad Kalba. Ex-Red Bull Salzburg striker Mu’nas Dabbur secured a 2-1 victory for holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club in the 97th minute versus Al-Bataeh, and Sharjah’s stumbles continued in a 2-2 draw with Al-Nasr.

Second-placed Al-Ain’s reaction to eliminating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals was a commanding 4-0 triumph at Ajman, with ceaseless Morocco flyer Soufiane Rahimi making it five goals for the week via a hat-trick.

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

 
Player of the week: Paco Alcacer (Emirates Club)

Attention in Ras Al-Khaimah has, understandably, centered on Andres Iniesta.

But this week was the turn of their “other” ex-Spain and Barcelona star, Paco Alcacer, to come to the fore.

A revealing midweek interview conducted by the former with ESPN contained the revelations he was “not enjoying” a prolonged — and, seemingly, forlorn — relegation battle, though head coach Walter Zenga was “juggling everything trying to change this.”

Iniesta’s 1,000th career game was a numbing prior 2-0 defeat at Ajman, which left all at Emirates feeling bereft. An injection of hope was required urgently when inconsistent Khor Fakkan came to town.

Sharjah loanee Alcacer stepped up and delivered it.

The 30-year-old’s deflected strike on a turnover was not the purest goal of his playing days. Yet, it both sparked wild jubilation at a moribund Emirates Club Stadium and halted the struggling side’s 2024 top-flight goal drought.

That effort on 62 minutes levelled the scores. An opening league victory since Sept. 23, 2023’s reverse fixture with Khor Fakkan would follow when Alcacer unselfishly laid a low cross to winter-recruit Dia Saba to convert.

The ex-Al-Nasr forward’s clincher ended a demoralizing 10-match top-flight losing streak. It also moved his employers up to 13th, one place and six points away from safety with 11 fixtures left to fulfil.

A monumental task exists to avoid an instant return to First Division League. Iniesta and Alcacer possess the calibre to achieve it.

 
Goal of the week: Mehdi Ghayedi (Ittihad Kalba)

In a time of tumult for managerless Kalba, their rebounding Iran attacker’s quality remains unquestionable.

Mehdi Ghayedi skipped inside on the hour mark and lashed home a fierce low drive from 20 yards at a stunned Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium. It was another showcase of the ex-AFC Best Young Player of the Year’s residual ability.

The 25-year-old loanee lost his way upon arrival at Shabab Al-Ahli in August 2021. But a 10th top-flight goal contribution in 16 games and selection to the 2023 Asian Cup’s official Team of the Tournament makes next steps intriguing.

 

Coach of the week: Goran Tufegdzic (Al-Wahda)

What an impact ADNOC Pro League-stalwart Goran Tufegdzic is having at Wahda.

The Serbian stumbled out of the starting blocks with ADIB Cup semifinal, first-leg defeat to Wasl, a league draw with Sharjah and President’s Cup round-of-16 elimination to Al-Ain. A quartet of victories followed, with two 4-0 wins on the spin emphatically putting the Maroons into the ADIB Cup decider and cementing their hold on fourth spot by thumping hapless Hatta.

It would seem the miracle worker at Ajman was a fairer reflection of his abilities, than one of many recent managerial failures at Nasr.

 

Al-Ain’s epic Asian progress a welcome boost for UAE

It is a long time since UAE football enjoyed a night like that.

Al-Ain’s Rahimi-inspired AFC Champions League heroics versus Nassr needed true grit and admirable skill.

This unforgettable penalty shootout success made them the first Emiratis to reach the last-four since their own run to agonizing defeat in 2016’s showpiece, versus South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

It also followed on the back of the national team’s unsatisfactory round-of-16 upset by debutants Tajikistan at the 2023 Asian Cup. Seeing off Senegal’s Sadio Mane, Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic, Portugal’s Otavio and a multitude of Saudi Arabia internationals exemplified why reasons to believe remain about the UAE game.

It is now up to Whites boss Paulo Bento to reignite faith in his methods during this month’s impending World Cup 2026 qualifying double-header versus Yemen.

If a perfect start in Group H is expectedly extended, it will put the UAE on the cusp of progression into the third round. The grand prize of a second-ever World Cup qualification is tantalising.

If achieved, it will be done without 85-goal record-scorer Ali Mabkhout. He has been cast aside after being awarded zero minutes at the Asian Cup.

This sense of a fresh era beginning is added to by Morocco-born, Ajman defensive midfielder Isam Faiz’s debut call-up. He is the first of an expected second wave of naturalized players who will reach FIFA’s five-year residency threshold within the next two years.

Exciting times on multiple fronts, after the draining disappointment in Qatar.

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