x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Al Ain have one hand on retaining the Pro League trophy

When it looked as if the game would have no winner, and Baniyas would creep within four points of the champions while Al Jazira stayed six back, the other Abdulrahman, Khalid, brother made a difference, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Asamoah Gyan, centre, was not at his best against Al Jazira last night. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad
Asamoah Gyan, centre, was not at his best against Al Jazira last night. Imran Shahid / Al Ittihad

For about 170 minutes encompassing two games it seemed as if all the predictions of an Al Ain procession to the club's 11th top-flight championship might be in error.

First came a nearly unfathomable 1-0 home loss to bottom side Dibba Al Fujairah and, last night, 80 minutes of frustration against an Al Jazira team who all but parked the bus in front of goal at Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.

Omar Abdulrahman showed few signs of his scintillating skill.

Asamoah Gyan was starved of the ball. Jires Kembo-Ekoko was nearly invisible, and Alex Brosque seemed to disappear among a thicket of Jazira red shirts, six of whom were dedicated to the defence.

But just when it looked as if the game would have no winner, and Baniyas would creep within four points of the champions while Jazira stayed six back, the other Abdulrahman brother made a difference.

Not Omar, and not Khalid, the busy left-back. But Mohammed, who came on in the 74th minute and made a darting run into the box that produced an ugly tackle attempt by Juma Abdullah, and a penalty.

Gyan stepped up to do what he does, and there it was 1-0, Al Ain, and the lead is still six points over Baniyas, and nine over Jazira, and time is running out.

Is it too much to ask for an exciting race in the Pro League? Of late, yes, it has been.

A year ago, Al Ain clinched it with three games left. In 2011, it was Jazira who wrapped up a championship with three rounds to play. In 2010, Al Wahda concluded business with a match in hand.

We must go back to 2009 to find a top-flight competition with any real suspense.

In that year, Al Ahli won the championship by one point over Jazira, with both clubs winning in the final two weeks of the season.

It is not over, not with Baniyas six points back with nine matches to play, but what seemed like a moment of Al Ain fragility does seem like history.

The most interesting aspect of the first half of the match was Jazira's defensive posture.

Luis Milla, the Spanish coach in his second week with the club, produced a 4-2-3-1 formation with the "2" extremely cautious in getting forward, and the wings, Abdullah Mousa and Khaled Sabeel, staying home.

It led to a lot of hard work by Ricardo Oliveira with no results, and only one really promising chance, when Ibrahim Diaky missed to his right with a fine chance from 10 yards after a nice combination from Matias Delgado to Oliveira to the captain.

Milla's plan seemed to be to keep Al Ain in check, see if they might get overanxious, and hope to score on the counter-attack.

Instead, it was Jazira, who dearly needed the three points, who were finally pulled apart.

Moving forward ever so slightly, in the second half, they were suddenly open to Gyan's dashes into the box, several of which Juma narrowly blunted, and then the split second when Mohammed Abdulrahman entered the box unmolested.

Do Baniyas have what it takes to make for an interesting final month of the season?

For the sake of competition, one would like to think they do, with reinforcements in the shape of Mohamed Aboutrika and Christian Wilhelmsson on hand, to go with Andre Senghor and Amer Abdulrahman, the second-best Emirati playmaker.

But Al Ain just shrugged off a shocking loss and hammered a stake into the Jazira season. They have a date with Baniyas in early May, in Round 24. It could be for everything.

More probably, it will be when Al Ain are securing their second championship in two seasons.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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