x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Al Ahli v Al Ain match thrown into disarray by injury to assistant's referee

The Pro League showdown between leaders and Al Ain and second-placed Al Ahli delivered little in terms of quality, and plenty in terms of controversy.

Grafite, left, the Al Ahli forward, failed to lift the gloom that had descended over Rashid Stadium due to the bad weather yesterday.
Grafite, left, the Al Ahli forward, failed to lift the gloom that had descended over Rashid Stadium due to the bad weather yesterday.

The weather was grim. And the football was hardly any better.

The Pro League showdown between leaders and Al Ain and second-placed Al Ahli delivered little in terms of quality, and plenty in terms of controversy.

The abiding memory of the match being that of the referee's assistant's bandaged head after being hit by an object thrown by an Al Ahli supporter.

It was the first incident of its kind in years, a suitably dismal end to a match that was anything but a good advert for Emirati football. Now, the Pro League may decide to scrap the result pending an investigation.

The omens, in retrospect, were not positive.

The match day had coincided with a sandstorm that had left Dubai looking like a dust bowl.

The early kick off too, as Al Ain captain Helal Saeed complained at the end, was hardly conducive to good individual performances.

And Al Ain coach Cosmin Olaroiu - already missing top scorer Asamoah Gyan - rested Omar Abdulrahman and Alex Brosque. And it showed. Quique Sanchez Flores's Al Ahli, fielding an ultra-attacking side, had the intent, but not the quality to take advantage.

It was scant reward for those fans who ignored the dust to produce a mostly wonderful atmosphere inside Rashid Stadium in Dubai. Al Ain's fans, as ever, travelled in their numbers. The home support, meanwhile, was loud and colourful, with banners dotting the perimeter of the pitch proclaiming "Ahlawy" love for the "Red Boys", or "Al Fursan".

Another simply said "Vamos Flores". Come on Flores.

But almost from the first kick, the match failed to get going. Foul followed foul, constant stoppages and play acting rendering the first 30 minutes some of the least watchable of the season.

The first half contained one magic moment - a brilliantly-saved shot from Ahli's Ricardso Quaresma - and even the introduction of Abdulrahman and Brosque for Al Ain in the second period failed to spark the match into life.

Al Ain's players, although clearly relieved at the end, showed varying emotions.

"We apologise to the fans that they couldn't enjoy this match," Abdulrahman said of the lack of quality.

His captain was far more bullish."We are 99 per cent sure of the title," Saeed said, before scolding those critics who he said had questioned their ability and desire to handle the mounting fixture list. In truth, however, there was little to celebrate.

The mostly friendly atmosphere among the supporters deteriorated and, when the referee's assistant failed to award Ahli a penalty in injury time, he was hit by something thrown by a seething Ahli fan. The match was eventually halted even though it was already in injury time.

In terms of future engagements, however, Al Ain will be delighted, even though Baniyas' victory over Al Shabab cut their lead at the top to eight points with six games to play.

They will believe they have now successfully negotiated one of the most difficult weeks of their season and can focus on the bigger challenge of qualifying from their Asian Champions League (ACL) group.

"We have a more important match to look forward to now, against Al Rayyan," said Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed, the Al Ain chairman, of their next game against the Qatari team they beat 3-1 at home on Wednesday.

Olaroiu will feel his decision to rest his star players was vindicated, as the fixture list shows no sign of easing up. Next up is that ACL visit to Doha, and afterwards a trip almost as long, to bottom of the table Kalba on the same day Al Ahli, now third, and Baniyas play each other.

Whatever the eventual outcome of last night's disappointing encounter, it seems the Pro League title will remain the property of Al Ain for another season.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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