AGL champions Al Ahli try to keep faith during struggles

Al Wahda continue grinding out results and topping table despite lack of superstars
Al Ahli, in red, pictured during their Arabian Gulf League match against Emirates at Rashid Stadium in Dubai on November 30, 2014, have struggled to match the high standards they reached in winning the league title last season. Afsal Sham / Al Ittihad
Al Ahli, in red, pictured during their Arabian Gulf League match against Emirates at Rashid Stadium in Dubai on November 30, 2014, have struggled to match the high standards they reached in winning the league title last season. Afsal Sham / Al Ittihad

Can Ahli bounce back?

Cosmin Olaroiu certainly thinks so. With Al Wahda and Al Jazira sharing points in their top-of-the-table clash, the Ahli coach said he believed his team had wasted a great opportunity to move into the top three on Sunday night.

Three points against Emirates would have taken their tally to 16 and put them only three points behind the leaders. Instead, they lost 1-0 and it was their second defeat in five matches at home.

From a possible 15 points, they have only managed to get five at the Rashid Stadium – away from home, they have eight points from a possible 12.

Those performances at home have certainly alienated the fans, some of whom were already unhappy with the decisions to extend the 35-year-old Grafite’s contract and replace Portuguese Hugo Viana with Mirel Radoi.

On Sunday night, one Ahli fan described Viana’s departure to Al Wasl as a “gift” for the Zabeel Panthers.

Grafite and Radoi have done little to win over their critics, though they still seem to have some support in the stands and the two differing sets of Ahli fans could be heard arguing aggressively after the loss to ­Emirates.

The two veterans still have 17 matches to turn it around and Ahli’s title defence will hinge on their ability to do so.

Grafite and Gyan struggle

Speaking of Grafite, age seems to be catching up with the Brazilian striker. He looks a shadow of his former self, and his tally of four goals from nine leagues matches is probably a reflection of that. The 35-year-old has drawn a blank in seven of those matches.

Comparisons are odious, but Ali Al Ameri, a defender at Al Nasr, has scored only one goal fewer than the Ahli striker in as many matches.

Football is a team game, true, but Grafite’s importance to his team cannot be understated – he scored a double each against Wasl and Jazira, and Ahli won those matches handsomely (5-1 and 4-2 respectively).

Al Ain seem to be facing a similar problem in regards to Asamoah Gyan. Winner of the league’s golden boot for the past three seasons, the Ghanaian has made only four AGL appearances this season because of suspensions and injuries.

He has scored three times in those matches but is way down on the goalscoring charts, with Jazira’s Mirko Vucinic (14 goals) sitting comfortably at the top.

Both Gyan and Al Ain should be making a charge up the tables in the coming weeks, though, as they have played two matches less than the others.

History repeats itself?

Over the past decade, Ahli have won the league title three times – in 2005/06, 2008/09 and 2013/14 – and they have done a poor job defending it. In 2006/07, they finished seventh, 17 points behind the champions Wasl, and three years later, they were eighth, finishing a staggering 32 points behind the champions.

Wahda were the champions that season with 58 points, and the way they have been playing this season, a repeat seems ­possible.

Jose Peseiro’s team might not have as many superstars as some of the other top clubs, but they have fought hard as a unit to remain on top. The 90th-minute equaliser at Al Jazira on Sunday was not the only instance of their determination this season – in seven of their nine matches, they have fought back from a goal down to get to a draw or three points.

In three of those matches, all away, they have struck twice in the second half, after conceding a goal in the first, to win the game.

Keeping this trend going could be a challenge, but Wahda have shown they are up for the fight.

The battle for survival

Wahda have kept their lead for another week, but the season seems headed for an exciting finish with only six points separating the top seven. At the bottom of the points table, clarity seems to be emerging.

Kalba, Ajman and Fujairah occupy the cellar spots, and the same three could be fighting for survival in the final weeks if their performances in the last round are any indication. Fujairah were embarrassed 7-0 at home by Baniyas, Kalba lost 3-1 at Al Dhafra and Ajman were drubbed 4-0 on their own turf by Sharjah.

The first two are coming from Division One and were expected to struggle, but towards the end of the season Ajman could be ruing their decision to part ways with long-time coach Abdulwahab Abdulqadir.

Yellow fever at Wasl

Last week saw a staggering 45 yellow cards dished out in the seven matches and five players were sent off.

Yaqoub Al Hammadi, the referee at the Wasl-Shabab game, contributed a big chunk of them – 12 bookings, three red cards and marching orders for the two team managers, Obaid Hubaitha and Humaid ­Abdullah.

It was, as the Shabab coach Caio Junior put it so politely, “not normal”.

arizvi@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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