x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Al Ain's forward march in Pro League continues

The table leaders looked sharper and more imaginative throughout against Al Ahli than the 1-0 result.

Al Ain´s Khaled Abdulrahman, white, and Al Ahli´s Ahmed Khalil fight for the ball.
Al Ain´s Khaled Abdulrahman, white, and Al Ahli´s Ahmed Khalil fight for the ball.

AL AIN // Champion sides need champion forwards and if Al Ain do seal this season's Pro League title, the combination of Asamoah Gyan and Yasser Al Qahtani will have played key roles.

Gyan's 12th league goal of the season, from a second-half penalty sealed a 1-0 win over Al Ahli that was more assured than the score suggested. Crucially, it stretched their lead over second-placed Al Jazira to seven points, with just seven rounds to go.

In truth the home side, playing at the old Tahnoun bin Mohammed stadium which they consider the luckier of their two venues, should have won it by more.

They looked sharper and more imaginative throughout and you suspect that had the pair of Gyan and Qahtani not been coming off a break, it could have been more.

The pair were at least slick in their approach play in particular, their understanding showing few signs of having not played together for nearly two months.

Gyan should have scored within the first minute, a flick on from a cross from the left and a defensive slip up catching him unawares as he poked wide from three yards out.

Al Qahtani's movement was particularly refined, regularly dropping deep to link play with short elegant passes and combining well with Emirati international Ali Al Weheibi on the right.

In those opening minutes, Al Ain established a dominant pattern that was not to be broken and the Saudi captain was everywhere, first putting in a curving cross after just two minutes which just eluded Gyan.

He then missed an ambitious overhead kick before putting the ball into the net after 14 minutes, latching onto a goalmouth scrap from a free kick, only to be found marginally offside.

In all this Ahli were nowhere, pinned back by an industrious midfield organised well by Mirel Radoi, the Romanian.

The absences of the Brazilian striker Grafite, the Chilean midfielder Luis Jimenez and Ismail Al Hamadi, all to suspension, took a considerable toll.

Though the sides went into half-time equals, that Al Ain would eventually break through did not seem cause for too much concern for a typically vociferous and hefty crowd. Still, the essential fragility of a 0-0 scoreline briefly became apparent when the visitors almost snatched a lead right after the resumption; Faisal Khalil snuck clean through only for Radoi to steal the ball off his feet at the last moment.

Not that Al Ain needed it, but the breakthrough ultimately required some fortune. Gyan bustled his way down the left and his cross struck the hand of Ali Hussain; it was ball to hand rather than the other way round but the referee Mohammad Abdulkarim Al Zarouni thought otherwise.

Gyan had missed his last penalty - in the African Cup of Nations semi-final - but he made no mistake here, slotting comfortably to the goalkeeper's right.

It capped off an energetic evening's work for the Ghaniain, full of powerful and ceaseless running down the centre and particularly through the flanks.

The only complaint was that he should have been more emphatic but at this stage of the season, the equations are stark: goals are goals and wins are wins, no matter the numbers.