UAE Pro League preview: Wasl march on, Iniesta strike not enough to save Emirates

DUBAI: Spain legend Andres Iniesta’s strike was not enough to quiet deafening alarm bells at relegation-threatened Emirates Club, results strengthened Al-Wasl’s grip on the title and Morocco striker Walid Azaro hit a “super hat-trick”’ for an appreciative Ajman during ADNOC Pro League’s consequential matchweek 17.

An early Iniesta tap-in upon Thursday’s restart after the international break boosted second-bottom Falcons’ hopes of consecutive wins, but this was soon shattered by Baniyas’ come-from-behind, 2-1 win. Hatta remained bottom when ex-Portugal youth forward Iuri Medeiros struck in a 1-0 victory for swiftly improving Al-Nasr, pushing them sixth.

Fourth-placed Al-Wahda and third-placed Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club shared goals past the 90-minute mark in an unforgettable 3-3 stalemate in the capital, which does little for either club’s shrinking title aspirations. A 1-1 draw between second-placed AFC Champions League semi-finalists Al-Ain and Sharjah also had the same effect.

These slips were welcomed by relentless leaders Al-Wasl, for whom second-half goals from Fabio De Lima, Nicolas Gimenez and Siaka Sidibe in their 3-0 triumph versus Khor Fakkan earned a 10-point buffer.

Morocco center forward Azaro, meanwhile, sensationally netted all four goals at 10-man Ittihad Kalba, securing a 4-2 victory, which moved them nine points from danger. Mirel Radoi and Al-Jazira suffered a 3-2 defeat late on at the manager’s former employers Al-Bataeh.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Walid Azaro (Ajman)

A high watermark, for club and player, this term.

Azaro was unstoppable during a rollercoaster contest on the east coast. His domineering talents fit perfectly with the brutal game plan applied by Daniel Isaila.

Ajman sought destruction and distraction whenever they received possession. That all four of the bullish center forward’s goals came from crosses — three headers, one devastating low finish — spoke volumes.

Kalba’s defenders had no answer. A parlous situation accentuated by Abdulaziz Al-Hamhami’s dismissal prior to the hour mark.

Within a season of struggle in the wake of last term’s club-record sixth-placed finish, Azaro can feel individually content. That is now nine top-flight goals for the campaign.

Only competition icons (De Lima, 10 goals; Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, Omar Khrbin, 11 goals) sit ahead of him. Ajman’s next-highest scorer (Ali Madan) has four.

Without their Moroccan hit man, the 11th-placed outfit would be in the relegation mire.

Goal of the week: Ismail Matar (Al-Wahda)

It takes a special player to influence matches into their fifth decade.

This is exactly what the timeless Ismail Matar managed in Friday evening’s epic match between Al-Wahda and Shabab Al-Ahli.

Passes within the tightest of confines, central and 30 yards from goal, were exchanged with impactful Iran midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi. The pair’s beguiling play was followed by the cleanest of drives from one of UAE football’s great technicians.

With zero back lift, the ball just flew past stand-in goalkeeper Adel Fadaq, appearing to pick up pace as it went.

Matar, 40, has looked a natural since making his Maroon debut back in 2001 and being named FIFA U-20 World Cup Player of the Tournament in 2003.

Fast forward more than two decades and there are precious few performers able to deliver such elevated moments.

Coach of the week: Cosmin Olaroiu (Sharjah)

It is never simple when Cosmin Olaroiu returns to the Garden City.

The manager who endured the most acrimonious of splits in 2013 found himself back at Al-Ain amid a run of one victory in six ADNOC Pro League runouts. Not good enough for a team of Sharjah’s strengths and resources, plus Olaroiu’s peerless reputation.

The King showed character to swiftly respond at this season’s AFC Champions League semifinalists to Laba’s opener via fitful Tunisia playmaker Firas Ben Larbi. So, too, Olaroiu who started with Bosnia and Herzegovina superstar Miralem Pjanic on the bench.

It is still only one win, one defeat and five draws in seven for the fifth-placed side, but this one felt more fulfilling.

Changing face of UAE football

A quick scan of March’s international break sees an expected pair of victories against minnows Yemen send the UAE into the third round of 2026 World Cup qualifying, with two games to spare.

So far, so normal.

Something seismic, however, happened in the 74th minute of Tuesday’s 3-0 triumph. It saw manager Paulo Bento hand a debut to naturalized Ajman midfielder Isam Faiz and herald the beginning of a new era.

The Morocco-born battler became the first resident player eligible to represent the UAE, since the revolutionary scheme’s domestic launch in 2019.

This continuing program has witnessed promising U-23 players recruited from across the globe who become eligible for Emirati citizenship after three years of residence and to play for the national team via FIFA rules after five years.

Faiz is the first. Many more should become available throughout the grueling third round from September.

These include Al-Ain’s exceptional 23-year-old center-back Kouame Autonne, reputed to have repeatedly rejected overtures from Africa Cup of Nations holders Ivory Coast. Outstanding club-mate Erik, electric Shabab Al-Ahli forward Igor Jesus, refined Nasr center-back Glauber and his former Botafogo academy teammate Lucas Pimenta — now of Wahda — are nearing the end of their waits.

This is in addition to the concurrent possibility for senior stars to become eligible. Wasl’s lead assist maker Nicolas Gimenez and Shabab Al-Ahli stalwart Federico Cartabia could be among those to follow in the footsteps of De Lima, Caio Canedo and Sebastian Tagliabue.

Something different is required to propel the UAE back to the World Cup, for just the second time. The squad, which underwhelmed under Bento at the Asian Cup, is set for the kind of upheaval capable of enacting change.

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