Ali Mabkhout, UAE’s Ronaldo to Omar Abdulrahman’s Messi, keeps Al Jazira driving down title road
Al Jazira 1-0 Hatta
JAZ: Mabkhout 90+4’
ABU DHABI // Play along, just for a minute, for analogy’s sake.
If Omar Abdulrahman of Al Ain is the UAE’s Lionel Messi (for analogy’s sake), flitting about indulging his most creative impulses and prettying up the beautiful game, then that makes Al Jazira’s Ali Mabkhout something like the Cristiano Ronaldo of the Emirates.
Ever-threatening, ever on the hunt, direct and relentless, equal parts capable of the spectacular and pragmatic.
And, okay, yes, this is all relative. But it even seems to go down to their free kicks. Omar’s Messi-like lofts curling into impossible spaces. Ali’s powerful, darting strikes cutting past helpless opposition.
It was one such Mabkhout free kick that gave Jazira their win on Friday night. Dominant throughout the affair but denied by a tough Hatta side and their keeper Obid Raihan’s fine efforts, Jazira looked like they’d have to resign themselves to a goalless draw, and squandering a chance to retake the Arabian Gulf League’s top spot from Al Wasl, who won Thursday night.
The Abu Dhabi club were just about there, four minutes into the six given for added time. And then Mabkhout struck:
A handball just outside the box didn’t quite award a penalty, but the effect proved the same. Mabkhout lined up, drilled a laser fading to the right and had it smacking the net before poor Raihan could even bother extending his arms.
And with that, Jazira maintained title pace.
Abdulrahman is the golden boy of UAE football, the Asian player of the year, and deservingly so. He has provided style and magic, inspired the Emirates national team through a golden age and driven Al Ain to domestic titles and a return to the Asian Champions League final.
But by this reckoning, Mabkhout is the most valuable player in the country. Runner-up in the AGL Golden Boot race last season (23 goals), fourth two years ago (16) and now this season atop the scoring leaderboard with Friday’s fine free-kick, on 15 goals in only 10 matches. No Emirati has had such an affect on the scoring charts in the professional era.
Over the past few years Mabkhout has effectively developed into an extra foreign import for Jazira, a player of such proficiency that if you were told he was an expensive purchase from Brazil it would seem to make sense. Call him Alinho.
Of course, the real key for Al Jazira turning into an actual, concerted title contender this season has been the impact at the back four. Centrally Joao Carlos has been a critical steadying presence, Fares Juma has recovered his best form playing alongside the Brazilian and summer signing Mohammed Fawzi, like Juma (he 18 months ago) recruited from Al Ain, has been excellent at right back. The effect for Henk ten Cate’s side is that, rather than trotting out a defence long among the league’s laughingstocks, Jazira now have the league’s stingiest backline.
(Jazira had the third-most goals allowed last year in finishing an embarrassing seventh, third-most the year before even as they finished runners-up and most allowed among the top-seven when they were third in 2014 – to just six goals so far this term, fewest in the UAE).
That’s very important. If you’ve seen Jazira play in the last three years, you would know it’s very, very, very important.
But it also wouldn’t mean anything without Mabkhout scoring the way he does. Providing goals at the most critical moments, as on Friday night.
With Al Ain and Al Wahda drawing 1-1 in the late match, Jazira have a six-point edge on the 2015 champions (in fourth), who in turn have two games in hand. It’s a tidy bit of symbolic math.
To extend that Messi-Ronaldo analogy a bit, if Mabkhout’s Jazira are to win their first league title in six years, it is appearing it will most likely have to come at the expense of Abdulrahman’s Al Ain, winners of three of the last five titles.
Just as Real Madrid, a wee farther to the west in Spain, seek their first league championship in five years with Barcelona winners of three of the last four. With, currently, a six-point lead. Jazira even wear white and black, Al Ain purple.
And, as it so happens, Ronaldo is expected in a few weeks to take back the Ballon d’Or from Messi.
Maybe it will prove portentous. If it is, Mabkhout’s snatching of victory from the jaws of draw on Friday will be remembered as one of the moments that made it so.
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Updated: December 9, 2016 04:00 AM