Al Ain 1 Al Jazira 0
Grafite 81 (pen)
AL AIN // For 80 minutes, Al Ain were a poor impersonation of the side that has dominated the UAE Pro League this season, a side that had scored a scarcely believable 56 goals in 14 league games before the shock loss to Dibba Al Fujairah last week.
Against Al Jazira in the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium in the Garden City last night – until a late Asamoah Gyan penalty – they looked like a side that might, inexplicably given their previous plunder, go two games without a goal.
Instead, Gyan's 22nd goal of the season sealed a drab, but priceless win, ensuring a six-point lead over Baniyas.
The title is not won yet, but it is getting closer.
"You'll say the title is already won but it isn't over," the coach Cosmin Olaroiu cautioned after the win. "It is only after the last minute of the last match with the last whistle that the title will be won."
It was not pretty but it was the kind of result you expect from champions at this stage of the season.
"It was a good game technically," Olaroiu said, "but not with that much excitement. We deserved to win and we won it through our determination against a tough side."
Jazira are nine points adrift now, their 12-match unbeaten league run broken and probably any hopes for the title.
Not that Luis Milla, Paolo Bonamigo's replacement as coach, was giving up hope.
"We don't believe our chances are over," he said. "We will fight till the very end, for as long as we have a chance."
The game was hardly what might have been expected from the top two sides (before this round).
For the entire first half, it felt as if Al Ain and not Jazira were chasing the leaders, so lacking in intent were the visitors.
Perhaps their incoherence was only to be expected given the coaching change.
They were happy to crowd out the centre, keeping plenty of men behind the ball and leaving Ricardo Oliveira and, to a lesser extent, Fernandinho to forage for nothing in particular up front.
It was the kind of set up designed to profit from a swift counter-attack or a defensive mistake and it was the latter that allowed them their only credible chance in the first half.
An indecisive back pass from Mohammad Salem allowed Oliveira to sneak past the onrushing Dawoon Suleiman but he could only cross from his position into empty space.
The defending champions had at least ambition to commend them, if not execution.
Omar Abdulrahman's performance captured something of this: always keen to get involved and urgent, it did not quite click for him, a number of passes of promising vision but not the requisite accuracy.
Frustration brought him a yellow card, for a late challenge, and was mirrored by Olaroiu, a constant, agitated presence on the edges of the technical area.
Gyan had presentable chances, the best of them a lovely curler which drew from Ali Kashief the best save of the first half.
The second half brought greater urgency at least, Jazira signalling their intent by coming out three minutes before the home side came on to the pitch.
And barely five minutes had passed before Ibrahim Diaky missed the kind of chance around which seasons hinge.
Neat interplay between Matias Delgado and Oliveira on the left presented Diaky a gilt-edged chance, unmarked and less than 10 yards out: he screwed it wide.
It felt a decisive moment as Al Ain slowly established a kind of benign authority on the game.
They held much of the possession and made most of the moves but rarely looked like finding a decisive way through.
Omar Abdulrahman curled a free kick over from just outside the area; Gyan hit the side netting from a swift move down the right; Jires Kembo-Ekoko scythed over from inside the area when he should have at least found the target.
But it was not until Juma Abdullah brought down Mohammad Abdulrahman late in the day that the authority was to be rewarded.