Pakistani pace legend Wasim Akram is hoping for a ‘development’ of cricket in Saudi Arabia

UAE Pro League: Shabab Al-Ahli stalks historic title as Pereira shines for Al-Wahda

DUBAI: ADNOC Pro League leaders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club’s grip tightened and defending champions Al-Ain were surprisingly weakened in what could be a crucial Matchweek 20.

The Leonardo Jardim leaders defeated Khor Fakkan 3-1 on Friday night, with Syrian striker Omar Khribin and Argentina winger Fede Cartabia among the goalscorers again. Results elsewhere saw a five-point lead with just six games to complete.

Rising champions Al-Ain should also prevail against relegation-plagued Al-Nasr. But a late shot from Ivorian youngster Abdoulaye Toure ended the second-placed side’s seven-game winning streak in the top flight with a 1-0 defeat at the shocked Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

Geronimo Poblete and Siaka Sidibe, meanwhile, were sent off in third-placed Al-Wasl’s chaotic 1-1 draw with Al-Ittihad Kalba. Manager Arno Buitenweg guided fourth-placed Al-Wahda to a 3-1 debut win at bottom Al-Dhafra and Trabzonspor loanee Djaniny helped fifth-placed Sharjah beat newly promoted Al-Bataeh 3-0.

Second from bottom Dibba Al-Fujairah bolstered their tenuous chances of survival with a 2-0 win in Baniyas, while sixth-placed Ajman and seventh-placed Al-Jazira shared late goals in a 1-1 draw.

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

Player of the Week – Matheus Pereira (Al-Wahda)

It’s not just the hair color that distinguishes Al Hilal loanee Matheus Pereira.

The peroxide Brazilian was a notch above as Al-Wahda, who was under the tutelage of unheralded Dutchman Buitenweg for the first time, passed Al-Dhafra.

Smart footwork provided an early assist for Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner Adrien Silva. A typical free-kick followed less than 10 minutes later, opening his Clarets account in style.

It was an intermittent campaign for al-Wahda. Several managers have come and gone: so have several members of their squad.

But a seemingly content Pereira has the raw ability to move her forward after a disheartening second season at Al-Hilal. They are waiting for any notes from Shabab Al-Ahli.

Goal of the week – Abdoulaye Touré (Al-Nasr)

A rising starlet showed limitless potential in Al-Nasr’s landmark win.

This season had been an endlessly sombre affair for the Blue Wave.

Excitement over the summer arrivals of Thorsten Fink and Adel Taarabt quickly faded as specters of an unexpected relegation battle for the UAE’s oldest club grew.

But late winter is fast approaching, and belated progress can be seen under head coach Goran Tomic. No more than the revealing influence of his teenage back-up in the garden city.

Toure’s fourth cameo in the league was a smashing run down the touchline that saw him pass highly-rated compatriot Kouame Autonne. Veteran Cape Verde winger Ryan Mendes played with a deft back-heel at pace and a narrow box whose thunderous shot was sent high in the air by the injured fingertips of UAE goalkeeper Khalid Essa.

With exemplary technique, Toure then saw himself tracing the ball from just inside the box to his right shoe before volleying a high-speed volley into the bottom corner.

That’s now three wins in five games for Al-Nasr, who is at the exhilarating height of 10th and virtually certain of relegation.

With players like Toure and Hussain Mahdi from the United Arab Emirates, their future can look much brighter.

Coach of the Week – Leonardo Jardim (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)

Historic success is on the horizon – and Shabab Al-Ahli appears to have the perfect tactician to lead them there.

Jardim’s side claimed their fourth consecutive league win and eighth unbeaten after a week of matches that saw several challengers falter.

On the last stretch both the pedigree and suitability show. Jardim has shown a lot since his summer rental.

Winning the AFC Champions League with Saudi Arabian heavyweight Al-Hilal added weight. The belief in youth that fueled Monaco’s rush for Ligue 1 dominance in 2016-2017 suits a Shabab Al-Ahli squad full of emerging talent.

Khor Fakkan have been kept at bay this weekend. Their hosts at the Rashid Stadium dominated possession (62 percent vs. 38 percent) and doubled their shot count from 16 to eight.

Shabab Al-Ahli has won the President’s Cup, UAE Super Cup and ADIB Cup since the 2017 merger. But it took a manager like Jardim to inspire them to create first class silverware.

Emerge unscathed from the Al Ain box office battle when the international break ends and its crowning glory can certainly be planned.

Mabkhout’s return delivers a mixed message at the start of the UAE’s crucial period

An iconic international career was about to end.

Ali Mabkhout, the record goalscorer with 80 goals, saw himself ignored for “technical reasons” at the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in January and a new era proclaimed.

However, an ignominious elimination from the group stage in Iraq has seen the dial turned back towards the striker ahead of Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s powerful United Arab Emirates side playing a number of important winter games.

This month’s training camp in Abu Dhabi and the unspectacular friendlies against Tajikistan and Thailand seem banal. But the pressured Argentine must show that the narrow failure of the 2022 World Cup was no fluke as the long run for the 2026 edition began in November and the delayed 2023 Asian Cup followed.

Hope for the future lies in the increasing influence of Shabab Al-Ahli wingers Yahya Al-Ghassani and Harib Abdalla. Khalid Al-Balochi is a mainstay in Al-Ain’s midfield and the equally tireless Abdulla Hamad is essential for Al-Wahda.

But it always takes someone to put the ball in the back of the net. As Arruabarrena learned in difficult circumstances, there is still no one better at it than Mabkhout.


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