DUBAI // When Walter Zenga was setting the targets for his Al Nasr team at the start of the season, at the top of that list was a very modest desire: to avoid relegation.
Last night, with 11 games still to go in the Pro League, he ticked that off with a battling 2-1 win over Al Shabab.
The victory took their tally to 21 points, one more than the 20 that Ittihad Kalba accumulated when they got relegated last season, and the Italian believes that is reason enough to celebrate.
"We are very happy because with this win we are safe as we have 21 points now," Zenga said.
"If you see last season, Kalba went down with 20 points and we now have 21.
"This was our first target when we started the season - to become safe as soon a possible.
"From now on every game is a challenge and we will see where we can finish.
"We can play freely now, without any pressure and enjoy our game. Our players have shown they can be competitive if they work hard, so let's see what happens.
"But first all we are very happy because the players have done a great job. They are amazing and I am proud to be a coach of these players."
Twenty of Nasr's 21 points have come from the last eight games, a period during which they have remained unbeaten.
Last night's win allowed them to leapfrog Shabab into third position behind Al Ain (27) and Al Jazira (23). Shabab remain in fourth on 19.
Fortuitous first-half strikes from Masoud Hassan and Humaid Abdulla Abbas sealed the fate of the match, though Julio Cesar's 64th minute penalty did raise hopes of a Shabab fightback.
While Zenga was unhappy with the spotkick, the Italian goalkeeping legend believes his team were guilty of letting their guard down after taking a two-goal lead.
"We relaxed after 2-0 and we need to change this," Zenga said. "We need to improve this aspect of our game because anything can happen during a match."
Hassan struck the opener, but could hardly believe his luck.
He was attempting a centre from the right, but the ball did not travel as he intended.
Instead it caught Salem Abdulla, the Shabab keeper, at his backpost as the ball beat him at his near upright.
Abdulla had done well four minutes earlier to keep a scorching Rodrigo Vergilio volley out, but was helpless against Hassan's freak goal.
Nasr's second in the 21st minute seemed a bit of a gift as well, although it was brilliantly executed by Abbas.
Stealing the ball close to the half-line, he darted forward but ran into Essa Mohammed, who should have cleared the ball.
Instead, the Shabab defender missed completely and Abbas finished off with a booming volley to the far corner.
"It was a very difficult game," Paulo Bonamigo, the Shabab coach, said. "We knew Nasr are playing at their best and going through a purple patch, but we played below our expectations in the first half.
"Our plan was not to concede an early goal, not allow Nasr to counter attack, but we did exactly that. In the second half, we played a lot better. That was the real Shabab team playing."
Shabab pulled a goal back when Linardo Lima elbowed Carlos Villanueva. The referee pointed to the spot and Cesar converted the penalty.
Cesar had a golden opportunity to level the scores in the 88th minute when Villanueva sent him clear, but the Brazilian failed to control the ball and crashed into Abdulla Moosa, the Nasr keeper, allowing him to waste precious moments in the closing minutes.
"We have to learn to not commit those defensive mistakes again," Bonamigo said.
"The defenders have to realise how difficult it is to score one goal. We conceded two silly goals and we did the same against Al Ain."
DIEGO MARADONA OPERATED UPON
Diego Maradona, the Al Wasl coach, is in hospital having undergone an operation to remove kidney stones.
The Argentine legend complained of some stomach pain yesterday morning, and was taken to a private hospital for a check-up, which revealed the problem. He was operated on last night and is expected to be released sometime today.
Wasl, who ended their five-match winless streak in the Pro League with a 2-1 victory at Al Ahli on Saturday night, had received more bad news earlier in the day when it was confirmed Ahmed Darwish was suffering from a torn hamstring.
Darwish had limped out of the match against Ahli in the 23rd minute and is likely to be out of action for six weeks.
The defender has been one of Wasl’s more impressive performers this season.