x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Wasl 1 Al Ain 2

Asamoah Gyan and his tiring teammates strike out Emana's early lead for the hosts.

Asamoah Gyan did not disappoint the throng of visiting fans fromthe Garden City. Satish Kumar / The National
Asamoah Gyan did not disappoint the throng of visiting fans fromthe Garden City. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // A pre-game amble around the Zabeel Stadium last night confirmed the champions were in town.

Opportunistic merchants were driving a fine trade in purple and white scarves, food vendors searched frantically for extra fare and a ceaseless swarm of kanduras chanted their affections as they prepared to invade the stands.

Al Ain's support is universally recognised as among the most passionate in the UAE, yet a tussle with Al Wasl always holds a special thrall.

To those slightly longer in tooth, these two clubs can stake claim to be the country's most revered, reputations buttressed with a collection of trophies and trinkets.

The current Wasl ensemble have nothing on generations past - Eid Baroot's men entered the contest ninth in the table - but the hosting of the league's starriest side, stocked with the division's starriest performer, was always sure to appeal.

Yet for the most part Al Ain threatened to cower from the billing, the Garden City club a shadow of their conquering best.

Passes perpetually misplaced, shots continually misjudged and decision making poor almost throughout, this was most unlike Cosmin Olaroiu's talented troupe.

Before the match, the Romanian had grumbled about the density of their fixture list as Al Ain chase honours both domestically and on the continent.

Weary limbs, Olaroiu said, would foster weary minds, and here his players lent weight to his warning.

Omar Abdulrahman, the playmaker of whom so much is expected, exemplified the inertia, his body bearing the marks of a burdensome schedule.

The Emirati was rated doubtful for the match, as the strapping on his left knee attested, but he was not the only visitor seemingly playing through the pain.

Asamoah Gyan and Jires Kembo-Ekoko, too, appeared to require support to aching joints.

However, a team that are widely considered champions-elect can always conjure class when needed most. It was just this time it took 66 minutes.

A goal down through an early snapshot from Achille Emana, Al Ain used half-time to wrestle free from their lethargy and immediately sought a familiar face to provide the thrust. Abdulrahman, uncharacteristically insipid during the first half, grew in influence after the break, and soon released Gyan with a superb clipped pass. The Ghanaian striker dutifully obliged, turning to direct his half volley past Ahmed Mahmoud in the Wasl goal.

Buoyed by the parity, Al Ain soon seized the lead. Abdulrahman again played his part, supplying Kembo-Ekoko with a ball into the right channel and allowing the Frenchman to square for Gyan, who headed his 24th league goal of the season.

Wasl, by now a jaded presence, mustered enough to twice quicken Olaroiu's pulse, but Jussie, the Brazilian striker, hesitated when facing Dawoud Sulaiman, the Al Ain goalkeeper.

If only he had proved as clever as Emana in the third minute. Then, as the travelling fans stirred, the Cameroonian had collected Jussie's lay-off before unexpectedly drilling a left-footed drive low past the sprawling Sulaiman.

In the end, though, it mattered little; Al Ain eventually too strong, as they have been for much of their rivals this season.

However laboured, the victory moved the league leaders nine points clear, although second-placed Baniyas can reel them closer when they entertain Al Wahda tonight.

Not that Al Ain's fans cared a jot, the hordes continuing to beat their drums and serenade their heroes long after the final whistle.

The Pro League's clasico may not have been vintage viewing, but the champions are closing in on an 11th title. The purple and white scarves continue to twirl.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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