The 2022/23 Adnoc Pro League kicked off on Friday, with champions Al Ain opening proceedings away to Ajman and new boys Al Bataeh seeking to announce their arrival. We pick out the highlights from Round 1.
Story of the round
Champions Al Ain, so impressive last season en route to a record-extending 14th UAE championship, opened their defence with a 1-1 draw at Ajman on Friday, but were left to rue Kodjo Laba’s missed penalty deep into injury-time to get the points. Last season's top scorer sent his spot-kick over the crossbar. It was the 103rd minute.
Promoted Al Bataeh, making their first appearance in the top flight, delivered against the much-fancied Ittihad Kalba, winning 2-0 at home despite fielding 11 debutants in their starting line-up. Lourency and Joao Novais both struck memorable goals on a historic day for the new boys.
At a raucous Zabeel Stadium, Al Wasl and Al Wahda played out a thrilling 2-2 draw, when Joao Pedro headed home Ismail Matar’s injury-time corner to salvage a point for the hosts. Fabio De Lima had earlier given Wasl a 2-1 lead, marking his first goal since last season was ended prematurely through serious injury.
Meanwhile, Baniyas began their campaign with a 1-0 victory at home to Khorfakkan, with Serbian defender Saska Ivkovic heading home in the 79th minute. The home side endured a fraught final few moments, though, when Ahmed Abunamous was sent off and VAR ruled out an apparent equaliser for Khorfakkan.
Master marksman Ali Mabkhout was at the double to secure a 2-0 victory for Al Jazira against Dibba Al Fujairah, last year’s First Division champions, on Saturday. Jazira, Adnoc Pro League winners two seasons ago, will once more likely rely on the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer if they are to run favourites Al Ain close this time around.
Al Nasr began life under new manager Thorsten Fink with a 1-1 draw away to Al Dhafra, the visitors rebounding well from Khalid Al Darmaki’s goal for the hosts just after the hour mark. New signing Dembo Darboe struck only nine minutes later to send Nasr happy on the long trek back to Dubai.
In the round’s final match, Spain striker Paco Alcacer underlined his potential impact on the league this season with the second in Sharjah’s 2-0 victory against Shabab Al Ahli at the Rashid Stadium. One of the league’s marquee signings this summer, the former Valencia, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal forward promises much.
Player of the round
Joao Pedro (Al Wahda)
The Al Wahda frontman, seemingly forever linked with a move from the Abu Dhabi club, was the main man against Al Wasl on Friday. Not only did Pedro display his bravery in heading home the opener – he took a whack on the forehead for his troubles – but he stood up tall right at the death, again powering home a header to rescue a point. Surely crucial to Wahda’s aspirations this season.
Manager of the round
Caio Zanardi (Al Bataeh)
The speed, and size, of change at the top-flight debutants has been remarkable, with the club comfortably the most active during the summer window. Two of the most notable signings – among the 20-plus – were former national team stalwarts Ahmed Khalil and Khamis Esmail. Al Bataeh did not even require the former, though, with Zanardi proving seismic change need not require a significant slice of patience, too. It’s early days, of course, but the former Al Nasr manager moulded his side into an expert counter-attacking outfit to dispatch an apparently resurgent Ittihad Kalba. Bataeh rode their luck at times, but what a start to life in the big league.
Goal of the round
Joao Novais (Al Bataeh)
One of that raft of recruits at Al Bataeh, the Portuguese midfielder endeared himself immediately to fans with a rocket of a goal to make certain the points. Collecting the ball on the left wing, Novais raced forward and evaded one challenge before unleashing a thunderous shot that clipped the underside of the crossbar - hugely satisfying - on its way in. OK, it arrived in the 99th minute, but still it capped a momentous day for the club.