x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Zing needed for Zenga boys

Al Nasr have to beat Al Ain to keep their title hopes alive when they host the Pro League champions on Sunday night.

Walter Zenga has said the only chance of Al Nasr winning tonight is if the Al Ain players miss the game by getting stuck in traffic. Jake Badger for The National
Walter Zenga has said the only chance of Al Nasr winning tonight is if the Al Ain players miss the game by getting stuck in traffic. Jake Badger for The National

Walter Zenga is not a man who takes kindly to setbacks, or criticism. But even Al Nasr's fiery Italian coach must realise that Sunday night's clash with champions Al Ain at the Al Maktoum Stadium represents a last chance to salvage a league campaign fast going off the rails.

As the Pro League reaches its half-way point this weekend, Nasr trail the pace-setting champions by nine points. But it could all have been so different.

And how Al Nasr must wish they had taken their chances against the 10 men of Al Dhafra last week.

A win then would have left them going into this match six points behind Al Ain with a chance of cutting that to a paltry three with a home win.

Instead, a confidence-sapping 1-0 defeat now leaves them facing the real possibility of dropping 12 points behind. And dropping out of the title race.

Even at this stage of the season, tomorrow night's game has taken on a make-or-break status. And not just for Nasr, but also for the other teams with designs on the league title.

Al Ain's visit to Dubai is perhaps one of the most difficult matches the champions are likely to face all season, and one of few where their rivals could realistically hope for dropped points.

Leave Dubai with their lead intact, and their chances of retaining the title will soar. Especially when you consider the run of games awaiting them when the league resumes on January 21.

An admittedly tough match at second-placed Al Ahli, the only team to conquer them in the league this season when they stunned them 6-3 on the opening day of the season, will be followed by a home fixture with Ajman, Dhafra away and Dibba Al Fujairah at home.

The latter three, at the very least, are matches that Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach, will expect his players to pick up maximum points.

Nasr's inconsistency, meanwhile, continues to frustrate their followers. Mid-November had brought renewed optimism that they could be the team to challenge Al Ain's supremacy with excellent wins against Al Wahda and Dibba.

That momentum, however, could not be sustained and two draws followed, a creditable 2-2 in the Dubai derby against Ahli and a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Ajman. Then came last week's demoralising defeat against Dhafra. Suddenly the mood around the club has changed.

Still, Zenga was surely engaging in the now-obligatory pre-match mind games when he said that his team's only chance of winning would be if Al Ain's bus got stuck in traffic.

Keeping expectations down, and pressure off his players, is all well and good, but the Italian will be aware that his team must perform tomorrow night.

And given Al Ain's current form, a home defeat remains the most likely outcome. With Asamoah Gyan, the league's top scorer with 20 goals, guaranteeing a steady supply of goals, and Omar Abdulrahman continuing to pull the strings with his magical left foot in midfield, Al Ain have looked invincible since that Ahli loss.

Unexpectedly, the fighting talk is coming from Nasr's Dubai neighbours, Al Wasl. The Cheetahs complete the first round of matches with a trip to Baniyas tomorrow night, and even though they currently trail Al Ain by a massive 14 points, coach Guy Lacombe has reiterated his belief that the champions can be caught.

Perhaps here a show of unrealistic bravado in direct contrast to Zenga's expectation-dampening words. Hoping Al Ain lose up to five games is already pushing the boundaries of fantasy.

The onus is on Nasr tomorrow to make sure that the league does not turn into a procession in the second half of the season.

Olaroiu not surprisingly continues to preach caution, but in reality Al Ain would have seen little to worry them from the rest of the league, and will privately believe that the title is already theirs to lose.

Last week, a win for Nasr against Dhafra could have left them the most likely team to stop Al Ain. A defeat tomorrow night for the Dubai club, and it begins to look like only Al Ain can stop themselves from clinching their 11th league title.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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