Arabian Gulf League’s most intriguing season turns Al-Jazeera’s path after top-of-the-table win

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In a few weeks, a team will be celebrating a historic Arab Gulf League title. Dates for the final five game weeks of the remaining eight have yet to be announced, but when and where the coveted trophy will be lifted, the winning team will return on the night of Friday February 26 as the ones that reshaped their 2020-21 country.

For now, Al-Jazeera is smiling.

First, there are Sharjah’s woes. Despite leading the table so far, the defending champions have appeared to be a shadow of the side that stormed the United Arab Emirates to win their first league title in a quarter century in 2018-19. The following season was declared null and void, disrupted by the pandemic, keeping the trophy in Sharjah for another 12 months.

Mastermind Abdulaziz Al-Anbari remains at the helm. A homegrown lad who had pulled the strings in midfield when Sharjah won the 1995-96 title, he returned as manager two decades later to turn a mid-table team into the ultimate counter-attacking unit. most powerful player in the country and become the first man to win the UAE league title as a player and as a manager.

Less than two years later, he had to see his legacy crumble in a game he missed through illness. A 3-0 demolition at home by Al-Jazeera on Friday made it five games without a win for Al-Anbari’s Sharjah as his side’s poor run resulted in them losing the top spot they had effectively secured all along of the season. .

Momentum can neither be created nor destroyed, but only modified by the action of forces. Isaac Newton might as well have spoken about the 2020-21 Arab Gulf League title race. For this, every bit of momentum lost by Sharjah was picked up by their Friday visitors, Al-Jazeera.

They may not have been in the stands on a memorable Abu Dhabi Pride night out at Sharjah Stadium, but Al-Jazeera loyalists were indeed the loudest on social media as they felt the tide turn on their side in pursuit. for the glory.

The stars finally aligned for manager Marcel Keizer. Young defender Mohammed Rabi kicked an early header for his first senior goal. The Dutchman’s high press system saw compatriot Brandley Kuwas, an Al-Nasr signing in January, win the ball deep in the opposition half and provide the talisman Ali Mabkhout who made it 2-0 before the break.

Not even a red card for midfielder Abdullah Ramadan could stop Al-Jazeera’s frantic display, and the top spot was signed, sealed and delivered to Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium as Mabkhout rode home in added time for his 17th goal of the season.

By any measure, Friday night was indicative of the two clubs and their contrasting trajectories. Every time Sharjah’s Caio Lucas and Saif Rashid attempted an outrageous skill to lose possession in their own half, there was a period of quick, intricate passing and coordinated pressure from the well-trained midfielder. Al-Jazeera. For every moment of Igor Coronado’s frustrated solo runs, there was a heated exchange of positions between Mabkhout and his protege-turned-teammate Zayed Al Ameri.

Then there are the Baniyas Sky Blues: quietly going about their business as they have done all season, and in the process slipping into the title conversation with their 36 points putting them third overall, just four behind Al-Jazeera.

A decade has passed since their best league campaign; a season in which they finished second to none other than Al-Jazeera. Countless foreign managers and players have passed through the revolving door of Al-Shamkha Stadium, on the outskirts of the capital Abu Dhabi. There was relegation then instant promotion, an ambitious new project and finally a season where they flew under the radar, appearing almost out of nowhere to book a place on the table for a card game they seemed the most unlikely guests.

Baniyas did light work on relegation contenders Ajman on Friday. Young Palestinian striker Ahmed Abunamous put them ahead before Brazilian striker Joao Pedro kept the pressure on Mabkhout at the top of the scoring charts with his fourteenth goal of the season to secure a third victory for the Baniyas in their last four games .

A long winning streak, as well as other ongoing results, could still see Al-Nasr – leader earlier in the season but fourth now – work their way into the title charge.

They are seven points off the top, but realistically it won’t be until after the Week 23 clash between Sharjah and Baniyas, four games before the curtain falls on the season, that we’ll get a much bigger picture. clear of who the next UAE champions will be in a season where traditional powerhouses Al-Ain, Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Wahda have been pushed aside by a brave new contingent of contenders.

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