x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Al Ahli and Al Jazira each face bottom-team threat

The AGL’s top two, Al Ahli and Al Jazira, are both wary as they visit relegation-threatened Al Shaab and Ajman on Friday.

Al Ahli, in red, sit atop the Arabian Gulf League but know three teams are closing fast. Christopher Pike / The National
Al Ahli, in red, sit atop the Arabian Gulf League but know three teams are closing fast. Christopher Pike / The National

DUBAI // Al Ahli might have a four-point lead at the top of the Arabian Gulf League standings, but assistant manager Catalin Raducan said he expects the title race to be a four-way fight.

With 10 league matches to play, Ahli are sitting on 36 points, while Al Shabab are second at 33. Al Jazira and Sharjah follow with 32 and 30 points, respectively.

“There is going to be a fierce competition between these four teams for the league title,” Raducan said.

“There are still a lot of matches to play. The key to winning the league will be winning against modest teams, and that is what we have been trying to tell our players over the last period.”

Ahli will be facing one such team Friday night: Al Shaab. The Sharjah side are among the league’s backmarkers with only 10 points from 16 matches and are fighting to avoid relegation, along with the two teams below them, Dubai and Ajman.

“This could be a tricky match for us, especially as this game comes after our win in the semi-finals of the President’s Cup [over Al Dhafra],” Raducan said. “The players need to be careful and not think they are going for a walk in the park at Al Shaab.

“We have to be focused and make sure we come home with three points. We respect Shaab, but our players have the experience and the understanding of football, which makes them win matches. So I am confident they will do it again against Shaab.”

Ahli’s closest rivals at this moment, Jazira, also face a tricky opponent – last-place Ajman, who have not won a match since beating Al Wasl 4-2 in the fifth round and have earned five points from their past 11 matches. But Walter Zenga, Jazira’s manager, said Ajman’s position at the bottom of the league table is not a true indication of the team, which has strengthened itself in the winter transfer window with the additions of Iraqi defender Ahmed Ibrahim and Ivorian midfielder Bakari Kone.

“We know it is going to be one very difficult and complex match for us,” Zenga said. “If you look at Ajman’s performance in recent matches, their position at the bottom of the league table is very deceptive.

“We should remember that this team forced a draw with Al Ain and they did not deserve to lose their match against Al Ahli [who won 2-1 thanks to a controversial penalty in injury-time].

“Those performances prove that Ajman are a team who face their rivals without any fear and put up an even stronger show against the better-ranked teams of the league.”

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Hamad steps in for Da Silva at Baniyas

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ABU DHABI // Adnan Hamad, the former Iraq coach, will lead Baniyas in Saturday’s Asian Champions League (ACL) play-off against Al Qadsia of Kuwait, after signing an 18-month deal with the club.

Hamad, 53, replaces Jorge da Silva, the Uruguayan who was fired after the team’s successive losses to Al Wahda and Al Nasr in Arabian Gulf League play.

“It has been very disappointing results ahead of the ACL qualifier and the club management felt it was best to make the change ahead of a new competition,” a spokesman for the club said.

“They feel the players may get motivated under a new coach. The club started the season with big hopes, but with more than half the season gone, the team is lagging behind in the league and the results are not improving.”

Baniyas are seventh in the league table with 24 points from 18 games, 12 behind leaders Al Ahli.

Hamad was appointed the Iraq coach in 2000 for two months and reappointed three more times, most recently in 2008. His last job was as Jordan coach for four years. He was also coach at Dubai in 1998/99.

“He has a lot of experience in the region and is familiar with the UAE league, and above all, understands the language, so we are confident he can adapt quickly,” the spokesman added.

“The technical committee had evaluated the performance of the team under da Silva and they were clearly not satisfied. They had been patient with him, but the last two results, perhaps, was the last straw.”

apassela@thenational.ae