x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pro League: Tough call on Golden Boot contenders Grafite and Asamoah Gyan

Previews: Al Ahli host Al Ain in what would have been clash of the Big Two scorers but Gyan is injured; Also: Baniyas v Al Shabab and Al Nasr v Al Jazira.

Al Ain's Asamoah Gyan with 24 goals and Al Ahli's Grafite, next slide, with a goal less in the list of top-scorers, are in close contention for Pro League's Golden Boot award this season. Mike Young / The National
Al Ain's Asamoah Gyan with 24 goals and Al Ahli's Grafite, next slide, with a goal less in the list of top-scorers, are in close contention for Pro League's Golden Boot award this season. Mike Young / The National

What could have been misinterpreted for hubris now seems simply a declaration of foresight. "I believe I can score 30 again, or even 35 this season," Grafite told The National before the first whistle was blown on Pro League 2012/13. "I have the quality to score more. That's what I work for."

The Al Ahli striker has spent the past seven months confirming his capabilities. Having marked a first season in UAE football with 30 goals in 35 appearances - 13 scored in 12 Etisalat Cup matches - Grafite has continued to terrorise opposition defences, notching 23 times in 17 appearances.

In fact, make that 23 in 15 league fixtures: not one of the Brazilian's goals has come outside the top flight. So another campaign, another race for the Golden Boot.

His main rival bears certain predictability, too. Asamoah Gyan, Al Ain's consistently fruitful forward, arrived here in September 2011 on loan from the English Premier League and promptly proved worthy of his renown.

Strikes against Emirates bookended his total. Gyan tallied his first goal in an Etisalat Cup encounter with the Ras Al Khaimah side, and by the time he concluded the season with two against the then-relegated club, his record read an impressive 25 goals in 23 matches. He had 21 in the league alone.

Al Ain, champions for the first time in eight years, were grateful recipients, repaying the star with a permanent transfer from Sunderland.

This term has only reinforced his reputation. Gyan has found the net 24 times in 18 domestic games, and it took until late January for a Pro League round to exist without one of his goals.

That, though, was nothing to do with an unexpected bout of profligacy - the player was leading Ghana at the African Cup of Nations.

Even so, he would not have departed Al Ain with a guilty conscience; by now, Gyan had collected 21 goals in 13 league matches, his club seemingly fixed for successive titles.

Space in his trophy cabinet will soon represent precious real estate. Just last week, Gyan was awarded the Arabian Leagues Golden Shoe for last season's enterprise. His ratio of a goal every 0.954 games far exceeded that of his closest competitors. The obligatory modesties followed.

"I didn't win this alone," Gyan said. "It's for all of Al Ain club because they helped me get it."

Yet the selfishness associated with all great scorers soon surfaced. "The league isn't over and I've already broken last season's record," he added. "I hope to score more until the end of the campaign."

He and Grafite, both.

However, the similarities do not end there. Although both took little time to settle in the UAE, their rise to prominence was far slower.

At club level, Gyan could not be counted on as a reliable goal-getter until his second season in France, with Rennes, six years after he had first appeared for Italy's Udinese.

Grafite's candle burned much slower. Famously, when in his early 20s and playing semi-professionally in Brazil's regional leagues, he supplemented his income as a door-to-door salesman trading in bin liners.

At age 26, he bagged a transfer to Europe. First Le Mans in Ligue 1, then the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, where in 2009 Grafite finished top scorer with 28 goals. For the feat, he was named Germany's Footballer of the Year.

And so he eyes another prize, this time in Ahli red. Admittedly, Boris Kabi (17) and Emiliano Alfaro (15) lead a gifted chasing pack, but such are Grafite and Gyan's talents that they could each afford to miss more than a month of the season and still rate as favourites to lead the league.

Much can be made, too, for the assistance provided by supreme supporting casts at Ahli and Al Ain, but there is little doubt the pair exhibit the attributes of top-class attackers: speed, power, finishing.

The battle for the Golden Boot was expected to resume this evening with Gyan and Grafite set to meet on the pitch, one goal apart but united by common objective. But Gyan has been ruled out through injury, meaning the only direct duel this season is the earlier meeting at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.

Then it was Grafite who emerged with bragging rights, having netted four times in Ahli's 6-3 victory. Gyan could muster only two in reply.

That, of course, was on the opening day of Pro League 2012/13, adding immediate weight to the Ahli striker's pre-season proclamation. Gyan's personal aspirations challenged by Grafite?

The writing was always on the wall.


Baniyas v Al Shabab

Al Shabab may be fighting for three trophies, but coach Marcos Paqueta insists the primary target remains reaching the top four in the league.

The Dubai club, placed seventh, will travel to Baniyas and have recalled Ciel, Edgar Bruno and Luiz Henrique. The trio were rested for Wednesday’s Asian Champions League win against Al Ittifaq but will start against Jozef Chovanec’s, above, men. “Our focus is the league and getting the spots between first and fourth,” Paqueta said. “And then [next month’s] semi-final of the President’s Cup.”

Al Nasr v Al Jazira

Luis Milla takes his beleaguered Al Jazira side to Al Nasr tonight looking to relieve the pressure with a first league victory. The Spaniard, who took over in February, has led the club to only one win in eight attempts across all competitions.

In Nasr, Jazira face a team very much on an upward curve; Walter Zenga’s men ending their mid-season slump by collecting seven points from their past three league matches. Nasr have captain Leonardo Lima back after a suspension in the Champions League defeat to Al Gharafa.


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