The final battle for places in the 2018/19 Arabian Gulf League kicks off on Wednesday with the promotion play-offs’ first legs.
The impending return to a 14-team competition saw the traditional, two-up-two-down format parked. In its place on May 9 and 13, the bottom two from the top flight are set to meet the third and fourth-placed finishers from First Division League – champions Bani Yas and Ittihad Kalba automatically secured their advancement during the regular season.
Second-bottom Emirates Club will look to maintain their AGL status for a sixth-successive campaign when they battle fourth-top Al Hamriyah. But the majority of attention is focused on Diego Maradona-less Fujairah’s quest to go up for the first time since 2015/16 when they scrap with Hatta.
A soap opera between the Wolves and the Argentina icon saw them part ways within hours of April 27’s failure to secure an automatic berth. The club then prematurely announced a shock one-year contract renewal three days later, with negotiations definitively breaking down last Thursday.
Ex-Dibba Al Fujairah, Al Dhafra and UAE Under-23 coach Dr Abdullah Mesfer has stepped into the breach for third-placed Fujairah. But bottom-placed Hatta’s chairman Ali Mohammed bin Obaid Al Badawi quelled talk that this chaos would be a distraction.
“Our focus is on the game, not on the coach’s identity,” he told Al Bayan. “This is with respect to all coaches, whether it is Diego Maradona or Dr Abdullah Mesfer.”
Hatta’s hopes are harmed by the likely continued absence of 11-goal leading marksman Samuel Rosa.
Meanwhile, Emirates will need to defy a wretched run of form that has seen them accrue just one win from their last 11 matches in all competitions.
Milesi, 25, departed Riyadh on a free transfer this summer after two outstanding seasons since his procurement from Danubio. The Uruguayan won a pair of Saudi Professional Leagues, one King Cup of Champions, was defeated in the 2017 AFC Champions League final and scored six times in 59 appearances.
These achievements saw a number of Middle Eastern sides clamour for his signature when granted a release last month by the Crescent’s new management. But despite the Western Knights finishing one spot and one point above the relegation play-off places in 2017/18, they managed to convince the coveted free agent to ink a three-year deal with them.
“After a strong competition with local and other clubs, Al-Dhafra signed a three-season contract with Nicolas Milesi,” they tweeted.
Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida and Morocco centre-back Issam El Adoua are the only foreigners with the potential to be retained next term.
In the top flight since their January arrivals, Uzbekistan forward Igor Sergeev struck once in 10 matches and Brazilian counterpart Fernando Viana contributed no goals in 11 run-outs.
A change of coach is also likely.
Macedonian Gjoko Hadzievski completed his mid-season task of saving the club from relegation. This is not likely to earn him a renewal, with 2017/18 SPL Coach of the Year Vuk Rasovic, of Al Faisaly, tipped to replace him.
Uncertainty is a new feeling for Omar Abdulrahman.
So long the prince of UAE football, he nonchalantly swept his way to success for club and country since a startling genius was revealed 10 years ago.
But this term, the playmaker’s crown has slipped. Permanently, some would fear.
This is why Al Ain’s impending double header against Qatar powerhouse Al Duhail in the 2018 AFC Champions League’s round of 16 signals a flag post in a career losing its lustre. Another offer of redemption on a grand stage cannot be spurned.
Amoory has been outcast by the UAE since misdemeanours before January’s wretched Gulf Cup final loss to Oman – a game in which he, critically, twice blinked from the penalty spot. He’s also been usurped from his throne at double-winners Al Ain by emerging Egypt spark Hussein El Shahat and the relentless brilliance of Sweden No9 Marcus Berg.
Even a rapidly expiring deal at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium has attracted no obvious suitors or fevered clamour to acquire a talent that previously beguiled the likes of Manchester City, Benfica and Nice. There is just an acceptance from employer and prodigal son that fresh terms will be inked.
The 26-year-old’s prime years are not running to an apparently pre-destined script.
Nagging injury and indifference from him detailed the Boss’ run to glory in the Arabian Gulf League. It featured just five goals and four assists from their resident superstar.
In preparations for the AFC Champions League 2018 Round of 16 First Leg match tomorrow, @alainfcae Final Training today at Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium https://t.co/wW4Cw6M3Al #alainclub pic.twitter.com/0yTG4Nlkgf— Al Ain FC - EN (@alainfcae_en) May 7, 2018
In half a season, El Shahat notched seven times and set-up nine more.
When competition in the ACL runs white hot, Abdulrahman has not always responded in kind. Disappearing acts in the 2014 semi-finals and 2017 quarter-finals against boyhood club Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia are not forgotten.
Neither are his no-shows in both legs of 2016’s disheartening final loss to South Korea’s game Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Yet he was sublime two years ago in the last-four versus El Jaish – the outfit merged with Lekhwiya to form Duhail last April.
Abdulrahman was also untouchable in Thursday’s President’s Cup final victory against Al Wasl, teeing up both goals.
All hope is not lost about a mercurial talent without peer in Asia.