x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Baniyas can still finish with flourish

It is fair to wonder what more Lufti al Benzarti should have done at once-lowly Baniyas.

It is fair to wonder what more Lufti al Benzarti should have done at once-lowly Baniyas. The Tunisian coach won promotion for the Abu Dhabi side in 2008/09, led them to a surprise fourth-place finish in 2009/10 and had them second in the Pro League table this season.

Yet the club bade him farewell only days ahead of Baniyas's win-or-else home match with unbeaten leaders Al Jazira tomorrow.

Mahdi Ali, the coach of the UAE age-group sides, is now in charge, and perhaps his familiarity with the rising young players at Baniyas will help them produce a surprise victory over Jazira that could lend a dollop of drama to the final weeks of the league season.

The season at Baniyas can be neatly divided into halves: their first 10 league games, up to December 19, when they won eight times and on 24 points were only four adrift of Jazira; and everything since, which includes only one victory in 11 domestic matches. Included in that dreadful run: elimination from the President's Cup in the last-16 round and only five points from five league games.

Given that dismal stretch, replacing al Benzarti, sometimes described as a prickly personality, makes more sense.

But it was also during that period that Baniyas played without several key performers, sidelined by injury. Most prominent: the Emirati nationals Amer Abdulrahman, perhaps the best playmaker holding a UAE passport; Theyab Awana, a box-to-box midfielder; and Mohammed Fawzi, an athletic defender.

Awana, 20, was injured while on national-team duty in a January 5 match against Australia. Abdulrahman, 21, apparently was hurt in the UAE's final Asian Cup match, on January 19. Fawzi, 21, also has been in and out of the line-up.

Baniyas also did without Fawzi Basheer, the Omani forward, for several games during their slide.

The club proved unable to absorb the loss of four of their five best players, and the fifth, the towering Senegalese striker Andre Senghor, who had 12 goals from 10 league matches, was starved of service. He remains the league's top scorer, but he has only two strikes in his past five league matches.

The good news for Baniyas, and for Ali, is that the four missing players are back; they all were in the squad for the game at Kalba last week. Their restoration did not yield instant results; a 2-1 loss to bottom of the table Kalba was the final act of al Benzarti's tenure. But the restoration of the first XI at least gives Baniyas some hope against Jazira.

Baniyas were thrashed 4-0 at Jazira back in October, but they held the league leaders 1-1 at home last season, and they may well play before a full house tomorrow in their sparkling new home, the 25,000-capacity Baniyas Stadium.

A Baniyas victory not only would cut the gap atop the table from 10 points to seven, it also would be the first league defeat for Jazira this term.

Jazira have never won the league, an aberration they are likely to resolve in the next month. But Baniyas, too, have never won a league championship, and a victory over the top side could give them hope to aim for a top finish as soon as next season.

Also in the mix for Baniyas: their first Asian Champions League berth. A finish in the top four would assure them entrance in the 2012 competition.

Jazira have been the most thoroughly ambitious side in the league for several years. But Baniyas could reprise their rise. Like Jazira, they have a new stadium and a management team eager to make history, soon.

What they have that Jazira do not are three of the best young players in the UAE and the best out-and-out striker in the league. Jazira are the better side this season, but whether that will be the state of affairs in the near future is not at all clear.