x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Al Nasr v Al Wahda: a test for title hopefuls

Walter Zenga's side are back at home but their Abu Dhabi rivals for today are the surprise package of the Pro League this season.

Hamdan Al Kamali has proved to the mainstay in the defence for Al Wahda.
Hamdan Al Kamali has proved to the mainstay in the defence for Al Wahda.

DUBAI // The Pro league season may be only seven games old, but already tonight's encounter between Al Nasr and Al Wahda conjures thoughts of the title.

Nasr, third two years ago and runners-up last season, were always expected to challenge again this year. However, it is this evening's opponents that find themselves surpassing pre-season predictions.

Wahda, of course, were champions in 2010, but a couple of uncomfortable campaigns since - they recorded fifth and sixth-place finishes - had seen the Abu Dhabi club slip behind their customary competitors.

Last year's struggles owed much to a lengthy injury list: Magrao, the Brazilian midfielder, missed most of the season, while Ismail Matar and Fernando Baiano, the influential forwards, were constant casualties, as were Mohamed Al Shehhi and Khalid Jalal, the Emirati internationals.

Josef Hickersberger promptly stepped down following four years in charge, the summer was spent remodelling the team - Magrao, Baiano and a collection of older players were replaced - and Branko Ivankovic, the Croatian dismissed by Saudi Arabian side Al Ettifaq, was given the troublesome task of restoring Wahda to former glories.

That assignment grew in difficulty once Eric Mouloungui, the Gabon striker of European football experience, sustained a serious ankle injury during a September training camp.

Ivankovic, without Baiano's typical bounty, quickly recruited Marcelo Oliveira from relegated Sharjah, and has deployed the Brazilian in what has proved to be a formidable front four.

Oliveira, Matar, Papa Waigo and Saeed Al Kathiri offer the thrust. However it is the back five that has provided the thrift to guarantee early season success.

Wahda's defence, marshalled by a Hamdan Al Kamali enriched by six months in France with Lyon, is the meanest in the league.

So Wahda find themselves second only to Al Ain, having won five of their past six league games and conceding just seven goals. Victory tonight against Nasr, three places below but just one point worse off, could even see them top the table.

Gleaning three points from Walter Zenga's side will undoubtedly be tough, but two months of overachievement has bolstered belief.

"This season Nasr have started well with big ambitions to fight for the league, so this game is important for both teams," Ivankovic said. "They have some excellent players but firstly they are very strong as a team, well organised and disciplined.

"But we are also a good team. We have also showed our quality up to now and I would expect my players to give more than 100 per cent in this game in power, skill and motivation."

Nasr represent a serious obstacle, though. Against Baniyas last time out they relinquished their 14-game unbeaten league record, but Zenga's charges, aided by the goals of Italian forward Giuseppe Mascara and the ingenuity of Nashat Akram, the Iraqi midfielder, will not retreat any time soon.

Back in familiar surroundings - renovations to the Al Maktoum Stadium are complete - Nasr will seek a return to familiar form.

The Dubai club were expected to challenge for the championship this season, yet it is their visitors from the capital who are forming the unlikeliest of title rivals.