x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Luca Toni's lack of verve could prove costly for Al Nasr

Second-placed side in Pro League table squander opportunity to close in on Al Ain.

Hugo, the Al Wahda player, right, scored in the 24th minute in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night.
Hugo, the Al Wahda player, right, scored in the 24th minute in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday night.

ABU DHABI // The Al Nasr of Luca Toni is predictably more imposing and less athletic than it was before the towering Italian joined the side two weeks ago.

The change in style seemed a gamble worth taking in his debut for the club, when his goal was decisive in a victory over Ajman, but it seemed a poor trade on Tuesday night when Al Wahda hung a damaging draw on the Dubai club.

Nasr extended their league unbeaten streak to 11 games, but by leaving two points on the Al Nahyan Stadium pitch, they risk falling five points back of Al Ain when the leaders play tonight.

If not for an own goal by Fernando Baiano, which had been incorrectly credited to Nasr's Talal Hamad, Nasr would have gone home losers, and deservedly, after 90 minutes of ponderous slogging across the pitch.

For the first 45 minutes, Nasr played with a surprising lack of urgency, and it is fair to suggest some of the sluggishness was a function of the incorporation of Toni into their system.

Before his arrival, from Juventus, Nasr were fairly nimble up front, whether it was Ismael Bangoura, Rodrigo Vergilio or Amara Diane as the front-runner. Toni brings height and heft to the attack but removes speed and agility.

If he ever ran well or was technically proficient, when scoring buckets of goals in Italy and Germany, after nearly nine months off, and at age 34, those qualities were not in view. To see him loitering in front of goal, shadowed by Wahda's smallish central defenders, was to have the impression of one player from an older age group who had snuck onto the pitch with his little brothers.

Nasr's tactics were crude and obvious: lob the ball towards Toni and see if he could get under it and take advantage of his extra height.

For 45 minutes, it was a sterile plan, as Wahda defenders often stepped in front of Toni to repel lazy passes, or trapped him offside.

Wahda, meanwhile, buzzed and circled with their smallish but more technically proficient side, the veteran Ismail Matar in the lead, dominating possession and holding it calmly in Nasr's half for lengthy periods. In the 25th minute, their tactics yielded results. The holding midfielder Abdullah Jasem, one of several Wahda players deputised for injured colleagues, carried the ball up the right flank, and shortly before he reached the touch line he crossed it near the midpoint of the edge of the box.

A Nasr defender deflected it away from Baiano, the target of the pass, but the ball caromed directly into the path of Hugo, who stepped into the ball and rifled it inside the left post, just out of the reach of the goalkeeper Abdullah Mousa. Nasr were more energetic after half time, no doubt having been reminded by their coach, Walter Zenga, what a blow a defeat to a weakened Wahda side would mean to their title hopes.

They produced a restart just outside the box in the 47th minute, and as Wahda nervously focused on Toni, Baiano lost track of the flight of the ball, and it deflected off him and inside the far post. It should have been put down as an own goal, but initially credit was given to Hamad, the Nasr defender who had taken the free kick.

Toni had two half-chances in the final 10 minutes, but they came to nothing, and it remained 1-1.

With Al Ain's only defeat this season away to Nasr, and with Asamoah Gyan rejoining the leaders, Nasr's hopes of winning the league for the first time since 1986 certainly are less bright.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae