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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - UAE Pro League: Al-Wasl overcome champions Shabab Al-Ahli to lead table into new year break
Dubai: The ADNOC Pro League goes into the winter break and new year with the table leaders having vanquished the reigning champions, and Hernan Crespo gaining further breathing space at Al-Ain.
Caio “Super-sub” Canedo left it late to slot home the decisive goal for Al-Wasl in a determined 2-1, come-from-behind victory at stunned Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club. The strike earned a five-point advantage and catalyzed dreams for a first top-flight crown since 2007 for this storied but success-starved club.
Morocco winger Soufiane Rahimi, meanwhile, served up two second-half assists when second-placed Al-Ain defeated Al-Bataeh 3-1. Error-strewn Al-Wahda presented a trio of festive gifts to hat-trick hero Lourency in grateful Khor Fakkan’s 3-2 win, and fourth-placed Sharjah drew 1-1 with dogged Ajman.
Saturday’s matches contained a pair of last-gasp clinchers. French striker Youssoufou Niakate knocked in a 94th-minute rebound when eighth-placed Baniyas beat inconsistent Ittihad Kalba 2-1, while former Italy center-forward Manolo Gabbiadini netted a 96th-minute penalty kick to earn resurgent Al-Nasr’s 2-1 triumph against managerless basement boys Emirates Club.
UAE icon Ali Mabkhout warmed up for the impending AFC Asian Cup with a goal and assist when fifth-placed Al-Jazira maintained their 100 percent record since Frank de Boer’s exit, courtesy of a 3-1 victory versus second-from-bottom Hatta.
Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.
Player of the week: Caio Canedo (Al-Wasl)
Returning star Canedo delivered a clincher which exemplified Wasl’s title hunger, plus a celebration which spoke of their collective confidence.
The 33-year-old — back at the Cheetahs after four unfulfilling years at Al-Ain — came off the bench for the 11th time this term in a summit contest delicately poised at 1-1. Strength bundled him past Renan during the 86th minute, prior to calmly dispatching under UAE colleague Hassan Hamza and emotionlessly delivering a Steph Curry-inspired “night, night” sleeping gesture.
UAE football, certainly, slept on the potential in Wasl’s ranks when assessing title contenders in pre-season. But they prevailed at the champions despite star man Fabio De Lima’s suspension, with experienced Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic also netting a 39th-minute leveler.
Just as no one saw Sharjah coming in 2018/2019, each emboldening result increases the chances of history repeating — at another sleeping giant.
Goal of the week: Manolo Gabbiadini (Al-Nasr)
This was a late penalty kick laced with purpose for club and player improving by the week.
Ex-Azzurri striker Gabbiadini was not even meant to spend this season at Al-Maktoum Stadium. Yet, Cedric Bakambu’s swift departure to Galatasaray just 30 days into a two-year contract left a roster spot he was happy to fill, rather than face Serie B at Sampdoria.
The 32-year-old’s fourth goal in four top-flight runouts — and 10th in 15 appearances overall — came from 12 yards and in the last of six additional minutes in second half stoppage time.
It inflicted an eighth-successive defeat on bottom-placed Emirates Club and made it three wins on the spin under Alfred Schreuder. They had only taken one point from the ex-Ajax and Al-Ain tactician’s first two fixtures.
The perennially underperforming Blue Wave appeared poised to battle relegation when the season began with three consecutive reversals. Rare optimism defines their mood as they head into the winter hiatus in ninth, 10 points above the drop zone.
If Schreuder is gifted space to shape the squad in his image from the Jan. 22 transfer window opening, Nasr could enjoy a much brighter second half of the season.
Coach of the week: Nebojsa Jovovic (Khor Fakkan)
Jovovic, surely, cared little about a second yellow card that forced him to watch the game’s fraught final moments from the stand.
All that mattered to October’s hire was the three points. A distressing run of four defeats from five matches now can be rebranded with added gleam as two wins from six games.
Lourency’s treble — all converted from Wahda mistakes — moved Khor Fakkan up from 12th to 10th, a comforting eight points from the drop zone.
The Montenegrin now has foundations to build upon. It would have been a pained winter pause without these three points.
A long break for club and country
The ADNOC Pro League’s near two-month stoppage does not mean the intrigue halts — not even close.
International matters take precedence when ex-Portugal and South Korea boss Paulo Bento attempts to convert early enthusiasm into a decent go at leading the UAE toward a third Asian Cup semifinal in a row.
An in-form frontline of Fabio De Lima, Caio Canedo, Ali Saleh and Ali Mabkhout boasts 33 top-flight goal contributions this season, plus inherent chemistry through the aforementioned trio’s fine work at pace-setting Wasl.
Jazira center-midfielder Abdullah Ramadan and center-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi bolster the Whites’ spine, while substantial depth is provided by the likes of Shabab Al-Ahli flyer Yahya Al-Ghassani and Sharjah utility man Majid Rashid.
They kick off against Hong Kong on Jan. 14, in Group C.
Precious time, meanwhile, is afforded to fill managerial vacancies at Jazira and Emirates. Wahda have a decision to make about Arno Buitenweg after three wins, two draws and a defeat.
Pressure is also being felt, to varying degrees, by Shabab Al-Ahli’s Marko Nikolic, Al-Ain’s Crespo, Ittihad Kalba’s Farhad Majidi, Khor Fakkan’s Jovovic and Hatta’s Fabio Viviani.
Productive mid-season hires, Nasr’s Schreuder and Ajman’s Daniel Isaila, get an invaluable opportunity to impart their philosophies on the training pitch.
All sides will have their eyes on the month-long transfer window, open until Feb. 21.
The right additions can turn mid-table obscurity into a title push, or prevent a dreaded descent into the First Division League. There is still plenty to play for.
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