UAE Pro League review: New Al-Ain boss Crespo starts with emphatic win over champions Shabab Al-Ahli

Argentina legend Hernan Crespo enjoyed an emphatic winning debut as Al-Ain boss, Andres Iniesta’s sinking Emirates Club fell into the drop zone and Frank de Boer felt frustration at Al-Jazira during ADNOC Pro League’s memorable resumption.

The result of the round was saved for last, Crespo witnessing eight-goal leading scorer Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba net twice in Sunday’s commanding 3-0 victory at then-unbeaten champions Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club.

Al-Wasl remained top, however, after more influential displays from UAE forward Fabio De Lima and naturalized playmaker Nicolas Gimenez imposed Saturday’s 4-2 defeat on De Boer’s eighth-placed Al-Jazira.

Thursday’s recommencement after the international break saw a masterclass from ex-Roma, Juventus and Barcelona midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who helped Sharjah salvage an unforgettable 3-3 derby draw with Al-Bataeh, from 3-0 down. Elsewhere in matchweek eight, Al-Wahda — post Pitso Mosimane’s swift removal — inflicted a 4-1 thrashing on now-second-bottom Emirates, and Albania forward Taulant Seferi slotted home the 94th-minute clincher in Baniyas’ heart-breaking 1-0 defeat of 14th-placed Hatta.

Tunisia midfielder Haykeul Chikhaoui’s second-half effort ended Ajman’s 10-match winless opening to the season in all competitions, with this 2-1 triumph against fellow strugglers Khor Fakkan also propelling them out of the bottom two.

Managerless Al-Nasr — for whom ex-Ajax supremo Alfred Schreuder is tipped to make an instant return to the dugout after exiting Al-Ain — drew 0-0 with ADIB Cup semifinalists Ittihad Kalba.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Miralem Pjanic (Sharjah)

Elite performers have the ability to impose their will on a fixture.

Thursday’s frantic derby was such an occasion for Sharjah superstar Pjanic.

An ADNOC Pro League season-high eight key passes, according to statisticians SofaScore, were delivered by the heralded Bosnia and Herzegovina center midfielder. This output was essential to turning the tide on a game that had appeared far beyond once-insipid Sharjah’s reach.

Experienced visiting manager Cosmin Olaroiu was outthought and outfought by “apprentice” Mirel Radoi — the ex-Romania defensive midfielder excelled under him at Steaua Bucharest, Al-Hilal, Al-Ain and Al-Ahli in his playing days — when much-improved Bataeh raced into a 3-0 advantage by 35 minutes. Coveted Malian youngster Sekou Gassama netted the opener and added two assists, moving onto six goal contributions in eight league run-outs.

Sharjah required inspiration. Especially with recriminations still fresh from this month’s ADIB Cup quarterfinal exit to Kalba, as holders.

They found it through Pjanic.

An assist followed for UAE midfielder Mohammed Abdulbasit’s deflected drive, which made it 3-1 on 39 minutes, and he was involved in the move winger Luan Pereira completed with a clinical header to reduce the deficit to 3-2 in first-half injury time.

Determination from Pjanic after the interval was exemplified by a shot that hit ex-Ivory Coast youth midfielder Ulrich Meleke’s outstretched arm for the spot-kick converted by six-goal Brazilian forward Caio to level up.

Sharjah could not find another, this epic stalemate dropping them to fifth. But Pjanic’s belief should be vital in defining AFC Champions League Group B clashes to come versus Qatar’s Al-Sadd and Jordan’s Al-Faisaly.

Goal of the week: Taulant Seferi (Baniyas)

A quiet return to form is being recorded by Baniyas.

Little was expected after the departure of Gimenez to Wasl in the wake of descending ninth and 11th-placed finishes, following a surprise run to second in 2020-21.

This last-gasp victory versus Hatta, however, sent the Sky Blues up to a solid sixth spot. Seferi’s nerveless, late finish — with 17 seconds left of four minutes added time — made it 10 points from the last-available 15, a figure only bettered by pacesetting Wasl.

A poised low pass from substitute left-back Khalaf Al-Hosani sent Seferi in behind Hatta’s dangerously high defensive line. There was still plenty to do for the Albanian when he swiveled, 30 yards out from goal.

The Vorskla Poltava loanee smartly kept onside with a checked run, took two touches to steady himself and then found the bottom corner on 93:43.

Coach of the week: Hernan Crespo (Al-Ain)

Eyebrows were raised when Schreuder departed Al-Ain, despite Nov. 7’s victory against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Fayha returning Al-Ain to the AFC Champions League knockouts after a five-year absence.

The intransigent Dutchman had, though, made more enemies than friends in his brief stint at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

A call was swiftly made to amiable former Al-Duhail coach Crespo. The ex-Lazio, Internazionale, Chelsea and AC Milan center forward passed this first test, in purple and white, with flying colors.

Outcasts Matias Palacios and Omer Atzili provided goal contributions upon their comebacks to the starting XI. Al-Ain also registered a gargantuan 24 attempts to Shabab Al-Ahli’s 14, plus edged possession percentage 54-46.

A two-point gap in second to first-placed Wasl appears tantalizing for record 14-time champions.

Pressure builds ahead of decisive December

A breathless run awaits in ADNOC Pro League.

International breaks in October and November, allied with an imminent AFC Asian Cup, have produced a bottleneck. This congested run of four top-flight matchweeks until late December’s lengthy pause — plus, for those eligible, an AFC Champions League group-stage finale and remaining ADIB Cup quarterfinal, second legs — has created an intense pressure of its own.

Downturns in form can soon become deadly in a division that has already seen eight managerial changes. This is one more than Roshn Saudi League, despite that competition boasting four more clubs.

The same can be applied to ADNOC Pro League’s foreign players, ahead of the opening of the winter transfer window on Jan. 22.

Strong performances should negate the desire for change. Underwhelm, however, and clubs may find an urge to shake things up impossible to resist before Feb. 16’s preliminary restart.