Briton Ross Fisher and Belgian Thomas Pieters shared the lead after Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship third round on Saturday, with four-times major winner Rory McIlroy trailing by a shot.
Fisher carded a seven-under-par 65 while Pieters returned a 67 to stand at 17-under for the tournament.
Irishman McIlroy, playing in his first event since October, shot up the leaderboard into third spot with a couple of late birdies for a 65 to stay in the hunt at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Asked what he needed to do to make his return a winning one, McIlroy, who has slipped to 11th in the world rankings, said: "Just go out and try and shoot the best score I possibly can. I felt really comfortable, really relaxed out there".
Overnight leader Pieters needed four birdies on the front nine to stay ahead even as Briton Matt Fitzpatrick worked his way through the field. However, both players failed to replicate their form on the back nine, allowing Fisher to move ahead.
"It was another good day," Fisher said. "Obviously great fun getting out with Thomas, third day in a row, a lot of fun, a lot of banter. Just trying to hang on, felt like I played solid.
"Fingers crossed, we'll be paired again tomorrow, because it's been three fun, exciting days... We'll go out there tomorrow and hopefully have more fun."
Pieters was happy despite not firing on the greens. "I think I played pretty good today," he said. "I missed a lot of putts today. Made a couple birdies early, which settled me down.
"The back nine, I played good. But, yeah, I couldn't really make a putt. Hit one really close on 16 and 17, 18, pretty disappointing. I didn't hit many good shots there but it's still nice to make a par on the last after the mess I made."
Fitzpatrick, who shot a 63 to stand two off the pace at 15 under, was level in fourth place with holder Tommy Fleetwood.