x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

There is no place like home

Visitors to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, will find the hosts very stingy with their hospitality on the pitch.

Man-of-the-match Ricardo Oliveira is mobbed by his jubilant teammates at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday night.
Man-of-the-match Ricardo Oliveira is mobbed by his jubilant teammates at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday night.

Would an ambitious side from Dubai come to Abu Dhabi and give the newborn Pro League table a right toppling?

Well, they flicked on the home lights of the commanding defending champions, Al Jazira, last night, and within three minutes the referee had blown a momentous whistle, and he had cited defender Lucas Neill from The Country That Wins At Just About Everything, charging Neill with some mysterious foul that in the rule book apparently appears as, You Had The Temerity To Stand In The Wrong Place When The Other Guy Backed Into You.

Neill protested to no effect while one of Al Ahli's two new Brazilian sign-ups lined up a free kick, and soon Jakson Coelho let fly this confounding thing as the fifth minute ticked along, and the bid seemed to freeze goalkeeper Khalid Essa as it would much of humanity in Essa's defence, and Ahli looked as if an early leader in a nascent match when suddenly that thing smacked the crossbar and caromed back toward the throng.

So it counted as an auspicious beginning, but would Al Ahli come over on Round 1 and interrupt Al Jazira's comfort at home?

Well, early in the 11th minute it grew clear that Coelho and his countryman and fellow new sign-up Grafite might provide a compelling tandem for Ahli viewers. They combined for some beauty that saw Coelho feed Grafite and leave the former Wolfsburg employee with room on the right of the box.

Grafite moved swiftly through and had just a hint of a chance before directing it hurriedly into the side of the goal, so that wasn't quite it.

But with the Ahli players suddenly numerous in the box five minutes after that, Ismail Al Hamadi's shot just didn't quite have the mustard to scare Essa, but when Grafite appeared over there on the right again in the 21st minute, Neill kept close watch in a briefly enticing mini-duel.

Grafite ultimately reached the line and opted for the cross, and it skied tantalisingly over everyone without promising damage, so no, not there either.

Still, Ahli led the game in promising flourishes, so would the 2009 champions show out-of-the-gate intent to improve upon its last-season residency in eighth place?

Well, in the 28th minute Essa strayed out too far and wound up with Grafite and the ball and only one defender beyond the stranded keeper, and it flickered that this would be a moment that might make a stout champions cope with deficit, but then Grafite's shot went spraying into the stands so, no, that wasn't it.

But maybe this was: In another South American feast atop the box, Coelho got a fine feed from the Chilean new sign-up, Luis Jimenez, only he couldn't get enough on the shot so Essa corralled, but then in that same 32nd minute Coelho materialised near that same spot again, and he shipped a capable bid toward the left post and forced Essa to go sprawling to get it.

Which he did.

So then, of course, the ball began changing its mind, started hanging out nearer the Ahli goal, and Neill took it on the right well atop the box, and the whole thing began looking much like a champions' business in the 39th minute.

The Australian shipped in a cross that played violins as it went along, and Ricardo Oliveira headed it into the right edge of the goal, and Jazira's first night back with the lights on in league play took on the look of form.

The spring had morphed into the autumn, and the Jazira mastery at home - unbeaten last year - had morphed into the … Jazira mastery at home, and even with the new faces the exercise started off looking full of know-how.

But still, would a Dubai club visit at this very early stage and provide some kind of jolt?

Well, Grafite barged in from the left six minutes after the break and sent a worthy cross, but the goal bid went screaming into the stands if not the sky, and a minute after that Jazira's Abdullah Qasem fielded a floater on the right of the box, made a few deft moves and crossed calmly to Oliveira.

The latter matter-of-factly drilled in a second, gave Ahli the sudden look of being dominated, spiralled the visitors into a hopeless melange of anguished expressions plus a red-carded handball soon thereafter, and pretty much provided the emphatic final answer for this first night:



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