x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tense tussle to stay in the Pro League top flight

Dubai, Sharjah and Emirates all involved as two will take the drop down to Division One.

Emirates coach Lutfi Benzarti.
Emirates coach Lutfi Benzarti.

The class of Asamoah Gyan, Yasser Al Qahtani and Ignacio Scocco, and the resurgence of Al Ain's Emirati players under the leadership of Cosmin Olaroiu sealed the championship for the Garden City club with three rounds of the Pro League still to be played.

But that does not mean there is nothing left to play for as the season draws to a close.

There are still important games to be played both at the top and bottom of the league.

Al Shabab, on 36 points, Al Jazira (35) and Al Nasr (34) are fighting for a top-three finish which will guarantee a direct entry to next year's Asian Champions League.

At the bottom, Dubai (14), Emirates (14) and the once mighty Sharjah (10) are involved in a tense relegation battle and their fates might not be decided until the final day of the competition.

On paper, Sharjah probably have the easier of the matches as they are not playing any of the top four teams in their remaining matches.

They host Al Ahli today and then travel to Ajman before finishing off at Baniyas, but the "Kings", one of the UAE's most decorated clubs, have failed to win a single match in the last 12, losing nine, the last a 3-0 defeat by Dubai.

Sharjah's last Pro League win came at home on December 13 against Al Shabab and three different coaches have led the team since - Jorvan Vieira, Valeriu Tita (twice) and Abdulmajeed Al Nimr - and this lack of stability has been the primary reason for the team's travails, along with the modest performances by the players.

"We have lacked fighting spirit as a unit and this is the reason for our current situation," the defender Abdulaziz Sanqour said. "We as players should take responsibility and try to correct the situation. We still have nine points to play for, but we cannot get them if our poor performances continue. We have to show our mettle in these difficult times because the team is in real danger and we have to work together to pull us out of this situation."

Al Nimr, who took over the team after Sharjah dismissed the Romanian Tita for a second time this season in early April, concedes his team are in a difficult situation, but remained optimistic.

"We know we have a chance, but we also know how difficult it will be for us, especially after the loss at Dubai," Al Nimr said. "We have to remain positive though and do the best we can in the remaining matches. We have good players and if we believe in ourselves, we can still survive."

Ali Thani, a former Sharjah player and team manager, blamed the mistakes made by the previous administration for the team's decline, particularly their decision to sell players such as Nawaf Mubarak, Fahad Hadeed and Ghanem Basheer.

"In our playing days, when former players criticised us, we would listen and try to change things," he said. "But nobody listened to us and instead attacked us. Now the sword is on our neck and though mathematically we still have a chance, we are headed for relegation."

In their last three games, Emirates are playing two of the top four teams - Al Ain today and Al Nasr in the next round - and they end their season at home against Al Wahda.

Dubai, who travel to Baniyas today, will play their final game at Al Jazira; between those two matches, Ayman Al Ramadi's men will host Diego Maradona's Al Wasl, a team they have beaten in all three meetings this season.

There is more optimism in those two camps than at Sharjah, particularly at the Ras Al Khaimah club as they will play two of their remaining matches at home.

"We have a better chance than Dubai or Sharjah," said Saif Mohammed, the director of the Emirates team. "I believe we are better prepared, our morale is high and the players are really determined. We have a lot of confidence in our players. We are also playing at home and I am sure the fans will come out in large numbers to help the team."

To the relief of Emirates, Al Qahtani will be out of the Al Ain line-up because of suspension and there is a feeling the visitors might relax a little having already won the title, but Mohanad Salem dismissed this idea.

"We want to win our remaining three matches, especially this one at Emirates," the Al Ain defender said. "They will fight hard since they want to continue in the Pro League, but we are the champions and it is important for us to keep proving that."

Statistically, Dubai are in a better place than Emirates at the moment. Although all three clubs have scored the same number of goals in their 19 matches up to now - 22 - the Al Awer club have performed a lot better in defence.

They have conceded 36 goals, which is 10 less than Emirates, while Sharjah have let in 47. In a tight finish, which seems a certainty, Dubai's better goal difference will be a huge advantage.

Al Ramadi's team are also in high spirits following their victory over Sharjah in the last round - their first win at home of the season - and the Egyptian coach is looking forward to a strong finish.

"The win over Sharjah was really important," Al Ramadi said. "Now we have to make sure we keep up that performance. All three teams will be under a lot of pressure in the remaining games, so the important thing will be to stay calm and perform on the pitch without any negative thoughts."

There is a possibility all three teams could remain in the Pro League, with promoted sides Ittihad Kalba and Dibba Fujairah joining them in a 14-team competition for next season.

Calls to increase the number of teams in the premier division have gained momentum in recent times and Yousuf Al Serkal, the interim chief of the Football Association, has also supported the idea. Sharjah's Al Nimr is in favour of the idea, but has urged his team not to be distracted by these "rumours".

"We should not give such talk any importance and remain focused on our matches ahead," he said. "I have said before I support increasing the number of teams to 14 in the Pro League, but to talk about it towards the end of the season is not right. We should be discussing such issues at the start of the season or after the end, not towards the end of a season because it could distract the players."

Lutfi Benzarti, the Emirates coach, however, must be hoping the idea is sanctioned as the Tunisian believes none of the three teams deserve to be playing in Division One next season.

"Sharjah are a big club with a lot of history and I believe Emirates and Dubai have contributed a great deal to the competition this season," Lutfi said. "To see any of those three teams playing in the amateur league next season will be unfair. We have all worked hard towards the overall success of the season."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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