Asamoah Gyan scored his 22nd and potentially most important goal of the season to hand Al Ain a 1-0 win over Al Jazira at the Tahnoun bin Mohammed Stadium.
The game’s defining moment came 10 minutes from full-time as Juma Abdulla brought down Mohamed Abdulrahman in the area before Asamoah Gyan calmly slotted home.
The previous 80 minutes had been tense as both sides struggled to find their rhythm. Ibrahim Diaky squandered Jazira’s best chance early in the second half, as the visitors’ title aspirations took a sizeable dent.
They are now third after Bani Yas beat Dibba Al Fujairah 2-1, and are once again nine points behind The Boss who face the Sky Blues at home on May 10.
Luis Milla made one slight change to the Jazira side that lost in Iran last Tuesday, switching Matias Delgado to the left where he was given licence to roam. The decision may have been taken to test Al Ain left-back Khaled Abdulrahman against the pacey Fernandinho.
But it was a tactic mirrored by the hosts, as Khaled’s brother Omar was tasked with creating from the right, with Asamoah Gyan back alongside Alex Brosque up top.
Neither Abdulrahman nor Delgado managed to impose themselves on a first half which struggled to live up to the match’s lofty billing though. Not that the half was without incident, it just lacked a discernible rhythm.
Mohamad Salem Al Enazi’s under-hit back-pass almost presented Ricardo Oliveira with an early opening. Having headed the ball past Dawoud Sulaiman in the Al Ain goal though the Brazilian only had room for a volleyed cross, with no Jazira player in support.
The Boss’ best chances came when their slick one-touch passing clicked into gear, but Mirel Radoi was guilty of trying to overplay on more than one occasion when well placed.
Omar Abdulrahman’s frustrations were there for all to see in the 26th minute when he was booked for a late lunge from behind on Delgado. If he was having an off night, his side were at least on top by now.
Moments later Gyan found Jazira goalkeeper Ali Khaseif in fine form as he looked to curl an effort into the far corner only to see it tipped around the post.
And the UAE No1 would deny the Ghanaian again before the break, first dealing with a volley before he showed good awareness to fist Khaled Abdulrahman’s long ball away from danger as Gyan readied himself to control the ball.
Cohesive Jazira attacks had been few and far between in the opening 45 minutes but less than four minutes into the second half they should have taken the lead through Ibrahim Diaky.
Delgado pounced on a poor clearance from Mohammed Ahmed to pick out Oliveira in the area who in turn cut the ball back into space, where his captained contrived to side foot wide.
Jazira were enjoying their best spell of the game, winning a succession of corners, but while Oliveira shouldered one towards goal, it was the hosts that looked more threatening.
Gyan could only volley into the side-netting after some neat play from Omar Abdulrahman and Brosque before the former curled a delicate free kick just over.
Milla sent on Ali Mabkhout – who scored in Iran – in search of a goal but it was another substitute, Mohamed Abdulrahman who created the game’s decisive moment. Juma was tempted into making a challenge on the midfielder inside the penalty area, and when he just nicked the ball away referee Mohamed Abdulla Hassan Mohamed had little option but to point to the spot.
Gyan, not always 100 per cent reliable from 12 yards, stepped up and coolly sent Khaseif the wrong way to extinguish Jazira’s faint title challenge.