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DUBAI: Matchweek 24’s high drama sparked by a torrent of late goals has left Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club on the cusp of their opening ADNOC Pro League title, while Al-Bataeh’s relegation fears are now real.

An astounding Sunday evening witnessed 97th-minute equalizers in both of the top-two teams’ games.

Leaders Shabab Al-Ahli were pegged back to 2-2 by substitute Ghanem Ahmed’s last-gasp leveller for city rivals Al-Wasl, while – most consequentially – second-placed holders Al-Ain saw essential victory at Baniyas devolve into another 2-2 stalemate courtesy of Ahmed Barman’s heart-breaking own goal.

Monday’s 2-0 triumph for third-placed Al-Wahda at Khor Fakkan has put the two Abu Dhabi outfits three-points off top. But with only two fixtures to fulfil and the pair owning inferior head-to-head records, Shabab Al-Ahli are within one win of a guaranteed first league success since 2017’s historic merger.

Elsewhere, 12th-placed Dibba Al-Fujairah clawed their way out of the drop zone for the first time this season with a timely 2-1 victory versus 10-man Al-Nasr. Sinking fellow promoted side Al-Bataeh swapped places and fell to 13th when a 3-1 defeat at Al-Jazira ensured their 14th successive winless league outing.

Miralem Pjanic came off the bench for star-laden Sharjah but could not prevent a painful 2-1 home reversal to mid-table Al-Ittihad Kalba which caused the pre-season title favorites to hit seventh. Fourth-placed Ajman, meanwhile, remain well set for their best-ever campaign of the professional era with their 2-1 dispatching of already relegated Al-Dhafra.

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

Player of the week – Nicolas Gimenez (Baniyas)

Conjecture and rumor surround the future of Baniyas’ coveted star man.

Yet, there is certainty about the decisive impact Nicolas Gimenez is having on this season’s title race despite his current employer’s lowly 11th place.

Concurrent kick-offs and collapses were recorded by Shabab Al-Ahli and Al-Ain, on an unforgettable day. Baniyas’ soon-to-be free agent would play a lead role.

Second-half injury time approached in both fixtures with Al-Ain 2-0 up, their usual suspects 26-goal Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba and Moroccan flyer Soufiane Rahimi netting. A retreating Shabab Al-Ahli were 2-1 ahead in the derby with Al-Wasl.

Gimenez converted a 90th-minute penalty for Baniyas to half the deficit and make it 2-1 in both fixtures.

Then, at the same time as Al-Wasl youngster Ahmed’s scrambled strike made it 2-2 at the death in Dubai, panic catalysed by the unmarked Gimenez’s positioning would witness loyal servant Barman put into his own net on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city center to replicate that score line.

Devastation was the emotion at Al-Ain, while relief pervaded at leaders Shabab Al-Ahli – who have now drawn three of their last four league games.

Unlikely results must continue for Leonardo Jardim’s men versus Baniyas and Ajman for another twist in the tale. In truth, Gimenez appears to have written the eulogy on champions Al-Ain’s comeback.

Goal of the week – Aymen Hussein (Al-Jazira)

A strike both worth the wait and marked with significance was netted by striker Aymen Hussein.

Much was expected of the 27-year-old winter capture from Qatar’s Al-Markhiya because of a strong 25th Arabian Gulf Cup campaign with host-victors Iraq and a possible limited role for resident superstar Ali Mabkhout in this season’s final months.

The latter did not come to pass, and no top-flight starts have been handed to Hussein. But this opening goal for the Pride of Abu Dhabi against bedraggled Al-Bataeh was worth the wait.

An 85th-minute chop stylishly won him space on the penalty box’s edge. Hussein’s burst of acceleration, rare for a man of his imposing size, left another visiting defender behind, with a punishingly accurate low strike making Al-Jazira’s triumph ironclad.

Evaluation of where this leaves him is complex. A sublime solo effort came on a night when 32-year-old Mabkhout’s brace pushed him onto 25 top-flight strikes for the campaign and up to a record-extending 206 UAE top-flight goals in total.

It is difficult for anyone to shadow a legend. Even an Iraq international of Hussein’s repute.

Coach of the week – Hassan Al-Abdooli (Dibba Al-Fujairah)

Dibba’s great escape became tangible in matchweek 24.

Hassan Al-Abdooli’s engineering of victory against in-form Al-Nasr came when Al-Bataeh unsurprisingly fell at Al-Jazira. With both promoted teams possessing 1-0 away victories against each other, the former’s goal difference of minus 24 is keeping them afloat as the latter’s minus 26 threatens to sink them.

Neither side can be accused of not dreaming big. Al-Bataeh embarked on an extensive summer recruitment drive, while Dibba’s gleaming new stadium is a hallmark of rampant ambition.

Former UAE assistant Al-Abdooli could have protected Dibba’s top-flight status in a late drive, including 14 points from the last-available 18. In the same period, Al-Bataeh’s caretaker Said Chkhit has notched only two.

Much could happen before the season finale on May 12. But momentum is firmly with Dibba – and it is full credit to Al-Abdooli.

Cup successes cannot mask Sharjah’s significant disappointment

Sharjah sit in the remarkable position of potentially winning the President’s Cup twice in one season.

October’s delayed 2021-22 showpiece victory versus Shabab Al-Ahli could be repeated in Friday’s 2022-23 showdown against Al-Ain. These are welcome successes. But, so much more was expected.

Serial title winner Cosmin Olaroiu was bequeathed last summer with ex-Barcelona stars Paco Alcacer and Pjanic, plus former Roma center-back Kostas Manolas. A sure-fire hit looked set.

Stale Sharjah, however, possess only the division’s sixth-best attack, despite leading the way in defence with 19 conceded. A distant seventh place ADNOC Pro League campaign was not countenanced.

It is intriguing to analyze how twin President’s Cup glories may influence the short-term future of a project lauded globally in the off-season. Substantial changes may still follow on and off the pitch.

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