Messi a doubtful starter for Argentina; Vinicius back with Brazil for World Cup qualifying

Prospects for an absorbing ADNOC Pro League title race increased after the fifth round’s rollercoaster action.

Holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club and dethroned champions Al-Ain lost their 100 percent records before the international break. The former required an electric solo effort from Yuri Cesar to hold Frank de Boer’s Al-Jazira to a 1-1 draw, while the latter’s 10 men were sunk by Bosnia midfielder Samir Memisevic’s 71st-minute thunderbolt in resurgent Al-Nasr’s 1-0 win.

UAE veteran Sebastian Tagliabue, meanwhile, moved past 180 ADNOC Pro League goals with a headed brace in Sharjah’s 3-1 victory at Andres Iniesta-less Emirates Club and third-placed Al-Wasl’s tailspin continued after a 1-1 stalemate with lowly Ajman.

Al-Wahda’s disappointing start under Pitso Mosimane continued in a late 2-1 reversal at Baniyas, leaving last term’s third-placed finishers seven points off top spot. Al-Bataeh returned to winning ways by beating strugglers Khor Fakkan 3-1 and promoted Hatta remain pointless after a 2-1 away defeat against Ittihad Kalba.

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

Player of the week: Sebastian Tagliabue (Sharjah)

Timeless Tagliabue proved there is plenty left in the tank.

The Argentina-born UAE center forward was predicted to quietly roll into richly deserved retirement during a final assignment with Sharjah. Much fanfare had greeted their summer recruitment of Al-Hilal forward Moussa Marega, compared with measured admiration for the 38-year-old’s arrival.

It was Tagliabue, however, who dominated this valuable victory at Emirates. His textbook conversion of two pinpoint Miralem Pjanic crosses gained extra value as they came from a round in which the top four all dropped points.

Tagliabue’s career has been one of immense achievement. Goals 180 and 181 for the UAE top-flight’s all-time second top scorer were identikit, the flicked 10th-minute opener going in off the post and firm second restoring the lead deep into first-half stoppage time.

Fifth-placed Sharjah have been uncertain in the league, but strong in the AFC Champions League. This is a continuation of last season’s mixed bag, which included four trophies but a dispiriting seventh-placed finish.

This result has taken them within four points of Shabab Al-Ahli. Plus, it showed coach Cosmin Olaroiu that he has more viable options in attack than he envisaged.

Sharjah’s title bid last season was undermined by the competition’s sixth-best attack, recording 25 fewer goals than Shabab Al-Ahli. Tagliabue and Marega scoring on Sunday provided hope of brighter — and more bountiful — times ahead.

Goal of the week: Yuri Cesar (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)

It takes a special player to bamboozle UAE center-back Khalifa Al-Hammadi.

Former Flamengo youngster Cesar did just that in Saturday’s fascinating battle at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.

Shabab Al-Ahli searched for a source of inspiration after Alejandro Pozuelo’s exceptional debut campaign proceeded with his 19th-minute deflected shot. That moved Major League Soccer’s 2020 MVP on to six goal contributions in five top-flight run-outs.

The champions trailed at the break. Their deficit, however, was ended in spectacular fashion in the 48th minute.

A high press under Shabab Al-Ahli’s new boss Marko Nikolic resulted in an uncharacteristically loose pass in the corner from Al-Hammadi. This error would be compounded moments later when Cesar picked up possession just inside the penalty box from ex-Crystal Palace and Serbia midfielder Luka Milivojevic’s shoveled pass.

He stood up Al-Hammadi, the UAE’s youngest player when they made the 2019 AFC Asian Cup’s semi-finals, rolled his foot over the ball at speed, and forced the off-balance defender to the floor. Added joy followed when he nutmegged international goalkeeper Ali Khaseif for an impudent close-range finish.

This was a memorable eighth top-flight strike in 44 run-outs for a contemporary of Real Madrid megastar Vinicius Jr. who has struggled for consistency at Rashid Stadium.

It also came in a contest that showcased Shabab Al-Ahli’s determination not to be pushovers during their title defense, and fourth-placed Jazira’s reinforced steel under De Boer.

Coach of the week: Mirel Radoi (Al-Bataeh)

Timing is everything in football management.

Just as initial murmurs of discontent had grown about Mirel Radoi’s inconsistent opening, they were shushed by Al-Bataeh’s vital victory.

The ex-Romania tactician — who tasted repeat glory as a player at Al-Ain — needed a result against fellow strugglers Khor Fakkan. Friday’s hosts had lost their previous four matches, sinking to 11th in the league and going out 7-1 on aggregate to Al-Ain in ADIB Cup’s opening stage.

A determined Al-Bataeh would, however, blow their opposition away. They dominated the attempts count 19/7 and boasted 59 percent possession.

Alvaro de Oliveira’s penalty, plus tap-ins from Mohammed Al-Hammadi and Cameroon forward Anatole Abang, came in a punishing period either side of halftime.

Radoi can, surely, plan for Oct. 27’s restart against second-bottom Ajman.

Intriguing international stoppage awaits

The ADNOC Pro League has been put on pause for almost three weeks.

But, different domestic and international matters provide plentiful intrigue during the interregnum.

Breaks in action gift space to think and plot for club boards unsettled by disappointing beginnings.

Ajman must search for solutions after an unacceptable slump from sixth in 2022/23, to 13th on two points. Al-Wahda can, rightly, expect to be much higher than 10th and introspection is guaranteed at a bottom-placed Hatta, who have become only the second club since the 2013-14 season to start with five reversals.

Positive momentum, meanwhile, must be maintained by Paulo Bento’s UAE. The ex-South Korea and Portugal tactician opened last month with a 4-1 friendly victory over Keylor Navas’ Costa Rica.

A Dubai training camp contains non-competitive clashes against neighbors Kuwait (Oct. 12) and Lebanon (Oct. 17). Bright Al-Ain prospect Eissa Khalfan, 20, is in the mix.

Essential insights must be gleaned ahead of World Cup 2026 qualifying’s November kick-off and the winter’s Asian Cup.

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