Sweeping AGL changes continue with reduction to 12 teams

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Good times: Al Jazira with the Arabian Gulf League's title (PLC).

The wave of mergers sweeping the Arabian Gulf League has seen the competition reduced from 14 teams to 12 for 2017/18.

A UAE Football Association board meeting decided on the change on Wednesday night, in reaction to Tuesday’s shock series of amalgamations.

This followed a surprise decree from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, which saw Al Shabab, Al Ahli and promoted Dubai CSC become Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.

Later that day, a similar edict from Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, sovereign ruler of Sharjah, created Sharjah Cultural Club from Sharjah and second division Al Shaab.

The decision to return to 12 teams for the first time since 2011/12 will be evaluated before the end of next term. A draw to set the new fixtures will be held at the UAE FA’s headquarters on Monday, replacing a now voided ceremony from a week earlier.

Sheikh Mohammed received SAADC’s chairman, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and committee members yesterday to discuss details about the switch.

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Al Nasr defender Joan Oumari set for President's Cup final fanfare

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Up for the Cup: Al Nasr's Joan Oumari (Chris Whiteoak).

Lebanon centre-back Joan Oumari has spent less than five months at Al Nasr, but there is no doubting how aware he is of the President’s Cup final’s importance.

Oumari, 28, only missed one game as the Blue Wave finished sixth in the Arabian Gulf League after he was snapped up from Turkey’s Sivasspor in January. This leading role means he will be at the heart of a defence on Friday against Al Wahda which will aim to provide the platform for a second victory in the UAE’s most-cherished competition in three years.

Much of the team which beat Al Ahli on penalties in 2015 remains and they have let the winter buy know what is expected at Zayed Sports City.

Oumari said: “For everybody, it is very, very nice to be in the final of the President’s Cup. For me also, it has been a very nice four months in which I have been here.

“Everybody has told me it is very nice to win the final. You will see the Sheikhs, and that is very, very important for everybody.”

The Blue Wave stumbled after beating Hatta 1-0 in last month’s semi-final, drawing one and losing two of their last three fixtures. This has not perturbed boss Dan Petrescu, who insists the fact the matches were versus title chasers (Al Jazira) and relegation battlers (Bani Yas and Emirates Club) was decisive.

“In the last games, we played teams who were fighting,” said the ex-Chelsea right-back, whose contract expires this month.

“My players fight, but maybe they were thinking about the final.

“They must go on the pitch and show they can win a cup.”

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Nasr have been boosted by striker Wanderley’s return to training after injury.

In the opposite corner, Sebastian Tagliabue will lead the charge for the Clarets after another prolific campaign. The Argentine hitman was shackled in February’s 3-0 top-flight win and Oumari is prepared for the stern challenge ahead.

He said: “We won 3-0 when I played against Tagliabue, but I think he is very strong. He can keep the ball very well and we must press him.”

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Time to move to Europe for Mabkhout?

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On top of his game: Al Jazira striker Ali Mabkhout

As Ali Mabkhout surveyed the enamoured crowd while stood on stage at the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League Awards, UAE football must hope he didn’t feel fulfilled.

The striker’s status as the winner of the premier Golden Ball for Emiratis, and star attraction at Monday’s glitzy ceremony at Etihad Towers, reflected a season of unprecedented achievement for himself and Al Jazira.

An unfathomable tally of 33 goals in 25 predatory games was the greatest in the competition’s history, beating by two Ghana superstar Asamoah Gyan’s fabled prior landmark at Al Ain from 2012/13.

These historic efforts drove the Pride of Abu Dhabi to a runaway first title in six years, earned with the most points (68) and wins (22) ever recorded.

The adulation came in waves as he was swamped for selfies by supporters, then the throngs of media hung on his every word in the packed mixed zone.

Mabkhout, just like successive AFC Players of the Year Omar Abdulrahman and Ahmed Khalil, has been here before. He swept up the top prize in the AGL two years ago as his once-burgeoning talent blossomed, during a season which also included being top scorer at the 2015 Asian Cup.

UAE internationals Ahmed Khalil (L) celebrates scoring with his team mate Omar Abdulrahman (C) and Ali Ahmed Mabkhout (R)

UAE internationals Ahmed Khalil (L) celebrates scoring with his team mate Omar Abdulrahman (C) and Ali Ahmed Mabkhout (R)

Regrettably and detrimentally for the growth of the sport in the Emirates, such laudable achievements have not yet led to any of the trio shattering the glass ceiling and making the switch to Europe.

The question which it must be hoped Mabkhout, 26, is now asking himself is: ‘what more can be achieved by staying in the UAE?’ Does he want to keep smashing in goals against second-rate defences, or truly examine his unquestionable – but untested – skills where the heat of competition burns brightest?

Sadly, there is no guarantee such unflinching self-inspection and unalloyed ambition is occurring.

The highs of the continental tournament two years ago are long gone. Mabkhout has struck only seven times in World Cup 2018 qualifying, as he and his team-mates will struggle to make next year’s tournament.

Aside from joint-top scorer Khalil and his 15 goals, all of the squad can be accused of stagnating.

Fresh impetus is required, beyond the exit of paternal coach Mahdi Ali and replacement with recently-dismissed Argentina tactician Edgardo Bauza.

Moves to Europe, with the stern tests and exposure to raised standards this would provide, must occur.

This would mean new ground is conquered. Faisal Khalil came close in early 2006, only for bureaucratic and cultural pressures being applied to keep him away from Chateauroux – then of France’s second division (Ligue 2).

UAE centre-back Hamdan Al Kamali failed to make any appearances while on loan at Lyon four years ago. His younger brother, Hamid, played in the Champions League’s preliminaries when on loan at Malta’s Valletta FC in 2014/15.

Nothing tangible came of Chelsea and Internazionale’s rumoured interest in legendary Al Wahda forward Ismail Matar after he won the Golden Ball at the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship.

A similar situation envelopes Abdulrahman, for whom work-permit issues torpedoed a switch to Manchester City in 2012 following a successful trial. He is currently linked to Fenerbahce in the Turkish press, but thoughts about a move actually coming to fruition seems, sadly, fanciful.

Mabkhout gained overtures from the Bundesliga in the summer of 2015, as well as from Premier League Watford plus two unnamed La Liga outfits.

Just like in this week’s interviews, he flirted with the idea of heading to football’s traditional heartland at the AGL Awards.

Yet the kind of intense desire to become the first Emirati to make such a permanent switch does not appear to be in existence.

Of course, it is not all wrack and ruin at Jazira. Abu Dhabi’s role as hosts at this December’s FIFA Club World Cup has given them a berth, alongside the sport’s finest teams.

But exposure to the likes of Juventus or Real Madrid should not be by chance. Mabkhout owes it to himself and his nation to become a pioneer.

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