One of the most significant matches in the UAE football season played out to an almost empty stadium on Saturday night.
Players and managers provided the soundtrack, every cry or call audible, every thud of the tackle or block of the ball perceptible to the few in attendance.
And so it is for the moment, as football continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus. To its credit, the Arabian Gulf League remains one of the only divisions around the world that has sustained, part of a directive from the Football Association that has permitted matches to maintain, albeit without the presence of supporters.
The current situation has produced an increasingly difficult one to navigate throughout football, evidenced hours before kick-off between Al Jazira and Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, when the Saudi Arabia government announced the suspension of all sport in the kingdom. For the moment at least, the Saudi Professional League ceases to run.
Across the Gulf, on an uncharacteristically sedate night in the UAE capital, the top flight’s second-placed team battled the side who headed into the weekend in third. The prize? To narrow Shabab Al Ahli’s advantage at the summit.
In the end, Jazira prevailed, courtesy of a late double, helped no doubt by the fact Al Ain had to play the final 20 minutes with 10 men. A 3-1 home triumph shook up the race for the title.
To be fair, Jazira should have twice taken the lead early on, but for Ali Mabkhout’s miscalculation in front of goal. The UAE’s master marksman – he sits proudly as his national team’s all-time leading scorer – the striker lashed his first effort wide with only Khalid Essa in the Al Ain goal to beat. Only minutes had elapsed. Mabkhout screamed in anger.
It would not get much better for him. On 22 minutes, Jazira playmaker Omar Abdulrahman released Kenno with another clever flick, setting the Brazilian clear of the Al Ain defence. He squared to Mabkhout, who fell over the ball as he stood in front of Essa. Marcel Keizer, the Jazira manager, could barely contain his frustration.
Six minutes before the break, disappointment for the hosts turned to despair. Bandar Al Ahbabi strode forward down the right and crossed for Kodjo Laba, who gratefully headed home past Ali Kasheif from close range.
It kept up a seasonal trend: Al Ahbabi edged further clear at the top of the assist charts, with 12. Laba, typically delighting in tandem with his creator-in-chief, notched his 18th of the campaign. It has been some debut season for the Togo international.
Yet Laba's joy was short-lived. Almost immediately, Jazira had pegged Al Ain back. It fell to a former favourite to do it – the favourite – when Abdulrahman met Kennos's centre to tap home on the visitors' goalline.
The UAE star did not celebrate, raising his arms in near-apology. Clearly, he deemed his hugely decorated decade in Al Ain purple demanded it.
Abdulrahman played some part in his old side's reduction to 10 men. Early in the second half, he was on the receiving end of Al Ahbabi's mistimed challenge, prompting a yellow card.
With 20 minutes remaining, Al Ahbabi collected his second, although it did seem harsh. Contesting a high ball with Kenno, a flailing arm caught his rival in the face, prompting the referee's red. The Al Ain winger pleaded his innocence as he was dragged from the action, but it changed little.
A man to the good, Jazira stole it late on. Abdulrahman’s corner was only half-cleared, the ball looped to Kenno, who volleyed it beyond Essa. Blending belief with creative bent, it was an effort worthy of settling any encounter. In Injury-time, Mabkhout finally finished, speeding away from the Al Ain defence to drill home.
Jazira were the victors, closing out a curious contest in the capital. They sit one behind Al Ain in the standings, seven back from Shabab Al Ahli. With that, a late run at the title appeared wholly plausible once more.