x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Win over Shabab proves depth of Jazira is their strength

Pro League defending champions win 2-0 despite coach Caio Junior resting seven of their main players.

Al Shabab's Mohamed Ahmad controls the ball in last night's match against Al Jazira. Mike Young / The National
Al Shabab's Mohamed Ahmad controls the ball in last night's match against Al Jazira. Mike Young / The National

ABU DHABI // We now have settled the great hypothetical of what would happen if Al Jazira started a match without seven of their first XI players and Al Shabab made do without their two best.

Not that any particular clamour had been detected from UAE football fans to have that "what if" answered. Certainly not in a Pro League match.

Jazira took advantage of quality reinforcements at half time, an option not available to a less talent-rich Shabab side, and the Abu Dhabi club took a 2-0 victory at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, which lifted them into second in the league, seven points behind Al Ain.

The game had been characterised by both coaches, Jazira's Caio Junior and Shabab's Paulo Bonamigo, as being likely to determine which side would have a slightly less impossible chance of catching the leaders, who have nearly disappeared over the horizon.

It seemed something less significant at kick-off, however, as supporters totted up the wounded and missing.

Jazira had decided to rest the legs of most of their key players ahead of two major matches in the next 10 days: the Asian Champions League home game against Esteghlal of Iran on Wednesday and the President's Cup final versus Baniyas on April 23.

Abdullah Mousa, the left-back, was out with a one-match ban, and Matias Delgado and Lucas Neill may have been carrying minor injuries, but Ricardo Oliveira, Ibrahim Diaky, Subait Khater and Salem Masoud just had the first half off.

Shabab had no choice in the absence of the Brazilian winger Ciel and the Chilean playmaker Carlos Villanueva.

The former was out on a one-match ban and the latter had his knee wrecked by a vicious tackle in the Al Wasl game two weeks ago and is out for the season.

Lacking their best scorer and playmaker, respectively, Shabab were left with the little Brazilian Kieza leading the attack, and his lack of form had been established even before he floated around impotently at the top of the Dubai side's 4-2-3-1 formation.

His most memorable moment came in the ninth minute, when he was cautioned for diving.

Jazira at least had a real target man at the top of their 4-2-3-1, in Bare, the big Brazilian, and some second-team players who have shown some proficiency in the attack, particularly Sultan Bargash and Abdullah Qassem, as well as the Olympic team forward Ali Mabhkout, known as a skilled producer of scoring chances, albeit not a finisher of the same quality.

Caio Junior and Bonamigo had spoken of Al Ain's potentially difficult final five matches, which include a date with Al Wasl tonight, home games against Jazira and Shabab, and away matches at relegation-battling Emirates and Ajman, the season's surprise team.

The chance to cut their league deficit to seven points did not seem at the top of Caio Junior's to-do list, however, and it is perhaps understandable.

Jazira can, for the first time, clinch a berth in the knockout stages of the Champions League if they manage a draw with Esteghlal, and the significance of the President's Cup requires no explanation.

Caio Junior sent on Oliveira and Diaky after half time, and it was no coincidence that Jazira scored almost immediately, Diaky lofting a soft pass in front of goal that Mabhkout headed home decisively.

A half-hour later Mabkhout turned provider, chipping a ball that Oliveira subsequently chipped over Ismail Rabea, and with the Jazira goalkeeper Ali Kasheif nearly back to top form, that was that.

Shabab have their own Champions League date on Tuesday, in Riyadh against the Saudi side Al Hilal. The UAE club are last in their group, but an upset victory would put them back in contention.