Abu Dhabi: And so it has come to this as the next week of matches will not just determine the winner of the 2020/21 Arabian Gulf League, but settle many other battles — such as who gets the automatic AFC Champions League spot, who nets the qualifier spot for Asia’s top club event. Oh, and then there is the remaining relegation spot.
The only certainty so far is that Hatta have already been relegated and it remains to be seen if Fujairah and Ajman will be the ones join them on the slide down into Division 1 from where Al Orooba and Emirates have already gained promotion to the top-tier.
The big question, however, is will Al Jazira and Baniyas be crowned champions? It could happen at the end of the penultimate round of matches on Friday night, or the edginess could persist until the final round is played on 11 May.
When Al Jazira won their first title in 2010/11, Baniyas were the runners-up by a massive margin. It marked the Sky Blues’ best league finish ever. On the other hand, Al Jazira have won the title twice, more recently during the 2016/17 campaign. Marcel Keizer’s Al Jazira side haven’t been decisive, but they’ve done just enough to hang on to top spot. They are only just ahead, with their 51 points one better than Bani Yas’ 50. Both lost the opportunity to capitalise last time out as Bani Yas played out a goalless draw against visiting Shabab Al Ahli, while Al Jazira were held to a 3-3 stalemate at relegation-threatened Ajman.
Bani Yas coach Daniel Isaila believes his men can catch up, but only if they bring their ‘A’ game. Bani Yas are away on Friday at Al Dhafra and host Al Wahda in their final match on May 11 and Isaila has urged his men to throw the kitchen sink at the opposition in both games and focus on nothing but the six points.
“Nothing changed in the previous round after we stumbled against Shabab and Al Jazira also stumbled and we will try to compensate for that in the next match against Al Dhafra,”, he said. “Full points is what we will look to come out with from that game.”
The Romanian manager has also called for no distractions ahead of this fate-determining week, adding: “We have to focus on the next two matches and not look at the results of Al Jazira, as we must focus and make all our efforts to win and get the remaining six points, and then see what Al Jazira will achieve in these two matches.”
Al Jazira host Al Ain at the Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Friday and a victory against the UAE top-flight’s most successful side should all but secure them the prize, as they later host lowly Khor Fakkan, who only just managed to secure their stay in next season’s AGL after a surprise 2-1 away win at Al Wasl.
Jazira coach Keizer is confident going forward and added: “I believe we handled the break very well. The friendlies we played were very positive and it helped us a lot during the last month, and the players’ attitude was very encouraging during the training sessions.
“The break affected all the teams in different ways, but as I always said, we will think only about ourselves, and we will not distract ourselves by paying attention to what the competitors are doing.”
Bani Yas are in a precarious position in that if they fail to take points from both their games and either of third and fourth-placed Sharjah and Al Nasr — and for that matter even fifth-placed Shabab Al Ahli Dubai — win both their matches they face the prospect of finishing as low as fourth, which would mean outside the AFC Champions League Qualifiers spot as the UAE has just one.
While that is a whole lot of hypothesis, it is a scenario Isaila will definitely want to avoid.
Defending champions Sharjah are currently third, locked on 45 points with Al Nasr, but ahead on goal difference and both will look to improve their lots against Ajman and Al Wahda respectively. Shabab Al Ahli are a further point behind in fifth and have a Dubai Derby on their hands as they host ninth-placed Wasl, who will be seething after their home defeat by Khorfakkan, who are clear of the danger zone which now is a two-horse race between Ajman and Fujairah.
Ajman have a tough tie as they host Sharjah, while Fujairah have the relatively easier assignment of having to travel to neighbouring Khorfakkan. And each will not want to leave it for the final day as they face the other.