x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Survival is Sharjah's last chance of salvation

The Pro League's bottom club have five league matches left in which to make up the five points they need to jump two teams and reach safety.

Sultan Bargash, the Al Jazira midfielder, left, scored two goals in extra time to put an end to a brave Sharjah performance. Mike Young / The National
Sultan Bargash, the Al Jazira midfielder, left, scored two goals in extra time to put an end to a brave Sharjah performance. Mike Young / The National

Sharjah's season has been awful. The most casual of UAE football fans know that. What they may not have realised is this: Sharjah's campaign has been even worse than commonly imagined.

The numbers are mind-numbing: four wins from 29 domestic games, and two of those victories against lower-division sides; zero victories over Pro League sides in any competition since December 13, four months and 15 matches ago.

Two wins from 17 league matches and a place at the bottom of the division; zero victories from 10 matches in the Etisalat Cup; defeats of 5-0, 5-1 and 4-1 in the league.

Five appointments of coaches, one of them twice, four dismissals, one of them twice. Half of the foreign contingent swapped in midseason, as well as the chief executive and the club board.

It is a litany of failure, but it might help explain Sharjah's dogged if perhaps doomed resistance in the President's Cup semi-finals last night. A team at the foot of the table gave the cup holders quite a fright for 100 minutes.

Not until the 101st minute, in extra time, could Al Jazira separate themselves from the guys in red clutching at their heels at Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.

The match represented Sharjah's last chance to win something from a disastrous season, and they went after it with admirable energy and passion against a team who had, notably, conquered the Iran side Esteghlal five days earlier in Tehran.

Sharjah tackled with bravado. Every Jazira pass was contested. And in 100 minutes they yielded only once to what is still the league's most formidable attacking side.

Sharjah's issues are deep and numerous. They do not defend well, as their league-worse 42 league goals conceded attest. They generally are toothless in the attack because they cannot control the middle of the field.

The plan, way back in the summer, was for the Iranian Iman Mobali to be the difference-maker there, but like so many other Sharjah ideas of recent vintage, it did not work out.

The club brought in the Uzbek midfielder Timur Kapadze in the January transfer window, and he seemed to help, a bit. But then Valeriu Tita, the Romanian, got his second crack at leading the team, and he seemed to have no place for Kapadze, a man with 92 caps for Uzbekistan. It was a source of bemusement as well as amusement around the league.

All that misery, but still, the President's Cup! Those two wins over lower-division sides had put them, improbably, in the final four.

Sharjah have won the cup a record eight times, and their cherished nickname of "the King" in part stems from their success in the country's second-biggest competition. If they could somehow slip a few past Jazira, they would be in the final.

The match was the debut of Abdulmajeed Al Nimr as Sharjah coach, and if he had not much time to prepare the squad, he at least did the sensible thing and stationed Kapadze in midfield, and Jazira had only most of the ball, not all of it. The formidable Brazilian attacking duo of Edinho and Marcelo Oliveira actually had a few opportunities.

Edinho made the most of his, in the 55th minute, dribbling past four Jazira defenders before slotting home a goal to equalise.

Thirty-five minutes later, the game went to extra time, and Al Nimr knew something extraordinary was unlikely.

"Our team has problems with stamina," he said. "That is why so many players were cramping. They were brave, but they were tired."

Caio Junior, the Jazira coach, feared exactly what he got: a Sharjah side trying to salvage a pearl from the wreckage of a season.

"A cup is not like the league," he said. "A small team can knock out a big team. This was my greatest fear."

Three Jazira goals in the final 10 minutes blew open the game, and the Sharjah fantasy of a President's Cup final had gone.

They now return to the dreary indignity of a relegation battle and the potential horror of going down for the first time in the club's history.

They have five league matches left in which to make up the five points they need to jump two teams and reach safety. It will be a grind, not at all like the glittering hope of a cup final they came close to seizing last night.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae

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