Only a fool would draw conclusions as to how the season will end after the opening day – but astute observers of the Arabian Gulf League’s maiden round of fixtures could come to the conclusion that Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Al Jazira might return to prominence in 2018/19.
Both clubs endured frustrating 2017/18 campaigns. Jazira, champions the previous season, tanked as they finished in the bottom half of the table and a mammoth 25 points adrift of Al Ain, who took their AGL crown.
Shabab Al Ahli meanwhile, who have 10 UAE titles between them – in their old guises as Al Ahli and Al Shabab – fared little better following the shock merger between them and lesser known Dubai Club last summer. They finished fifth but were clearly lacking the class of the top four.
But if the opening day is any indicator, it seems both clubs may well have emerged through choppy waters.
It was ultimately Jazira’s day, with former Ajax coach Marcel Keizer beginning his reign with a bang as his side edged a nine-goal thriller 5-4.
There may have not have been much to admire about either side’s defending, but the entertainment on offer from both sides in stifling UAE heat was sizzling.
Ali Mabkhout plundered his first hat-trick of the season – no doubt it won’t be his last – but the real heroes for the Pride of Abu Dhabi were young UAE starlet Khalfan Mubarak and forgotten man Leonardo.
Mubarak, 23, won the AGL’s Best Young Player as his club claimed the championship two seasons ago, but he seemed to regress a year later as the capital city side struggled.
He was instrumental at Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum Stadium though, setting up two goals and firing the winner himself. Leonardo, meanwhile, loaned to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr last season, also shone with assists for Mabkhout’s first two goals which dragged Jazira back into the game at 3-3.
For Shabab Al Ahli, this was certainly a win that got away from them – from leading 3-1 in the 40th minute, they allowed Jazira to level before the break.
They have certainly worked hard in the transfer market – with a trio of new coach Jose Luis Sierra’s summer signings combining beautifully to put Shabab Al Ahli 3-1 up.
Ecuador attacker Jaime Ayovi struck his first AGL goal from close range to give them the lead after just five minutes.
After Mubarak had teed up Ghana wideman Ernest Asante to level with a beautiful chipped effort on his debut, the hosts took charge.
Ayovi’s fine flick played in another new arrival, Argentine forward Emiliano Vecchio, who calmly sidefooted his side back in the lead, with compatriot Mauro Diaz, signed from FC Dallas, then lofting a brilliant pass over the top to Ayovi, who controlled sublimely before firing through Ali Khaseif’s legs.
As equally impressive as they were in attack, Shabab Al Ahli’s capitulation at the back was alarming.
Leonardo won the ball brilliantly on the edge of the box, dummied Salman Khamis before pulling the ball back across goal for Mabkhout to tuck home.
Three minutes later it was 3-3 when brilliant tenacity from Mubarak fed Leonardo and his excellent low delivery was again pounced on by Mabkhout who got ahead of Abdelaziz Haikal to prod home.
Kaizer’s men took the lead five minutes after the break, with Mabkhout completing a 10-minute treble when he collected Mubarak’s fine pass and rifled across Majed Nasser with his weaker left foot.
Referee Yaqoub Al Hammadi then consulted VAR to award Shabab Al Ali a penalty 13 minutes before the end, Salim Rashid adjudged to have felled Ayovi, and after it was given, Henrique Luvannor squared things up.
It was left to the man of the match to settle a manic game. Mubarak, hacked down on the edge of the box by Diaz, dusted himself down and swung a swerving free-kick over the wall and beyond the desperate dive of Nasser three minutes from time.
There’s a lot to do defensively, but in attack both teams appear to have the weapons to mount a title assault.
Local football returns a little sooner than usual this weekend as the Arabian Gulf League resumes, with the intense heat of the UAE summer matched equally by the warmth of the reception it will receive from football fans in the Emirates.
Ahead of Thursday’s big kick-off, here are some talking points going in to 2018/19:
CAN AL AIN COPE WITH THE LOSS OF AMOORY?
The story of the summer, the best player in the league, one of the finest Asia has ever produced, was sensationally wrenched from the bosom of Al Ain, where he had been for nearly half of his life.
Initially Omar Abdulrahman was said to be returning to boyhood club Al Hilal on a season-long loan, before it was announced he had refused to sign a new contract and was gone for good.
It seems the worst time for the Boss to lose their top employee – they appear to be approaching somewhere near their peak again after last year’s double. How can they possibly cope with the loss of such a generational talent?
If the Arabian Gulf Super Cup is anything to go by, they might be just fine. Wahda – runners-up last year – stormed into a 3-0 lead in Cairo before the Boss bounced back to draw 3-3 and take the game to penalties.
The Clarets eventually triumphed but with Amoory gone, the stage is set for Hussein El Shahat – a revelation after arriving in January – to provide Sweden’s World Cup striker Marcus Berg with the ammunition to fire more goals than the league-leading 25 he netted in his debut campaign.
REST OF THE PACK SHOULD PACK A PUNCH
Of course, the loss of such a superstar will have the rest of the top teams believing the title race is wide open – and it should be.
Wahda were contenders for three quarters of the season before fading badly following an epic 6-2 defeat to Al Ain – who scored four goals in the final 18 minutes – in March. They looked sensational in the first 45 minutes in the Super Cup final and have guaranteed goals in Argentine veteran Sebastian Tagliabue – last season’s Best Foreign Player.
Wasl, who were transformed in Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s maiden campaign in 2016/17, faded badly in his second. But they have retained Brazilian sensation Fabio De Lima and have an all Brazilian foreign legion now, while also drafting in talented UAE anchorman Khamis Esmail.
Al Nasr reinstalled Ivan Jovanovic as coach after the failed Cesare Prandelli experiment mid-season and he has recruited brilliantly this summer – France international Yohan Cabaye the most eye-catching, but Mohamed Al Akbari, Samuel Rosa and Habib Fardan are all exquisite additions. The Blue Wave should be crashing the title race.
We should also expect much more from Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, who struggled in their first season as a newly-merged entity and lost enigmatic coach Cosmin Olaroiu too. They should be a far more settled and stronger presence.
A RETURN TO NORMALITY
As ever, the bottom of the table should provide just as much drama as the title-contending top teams. And there is plenty to play for this season with the league returning to 14 teams, meaning there is more margin for error.
New boys Ittihad Kalba and the now Maradona-shorn Fujairah will be instantly pegged for the bottom two spots following their promotion from First Division League and their reputation as yo-yo clubs in recent years.
Kalba and the Wolves will certainly need to focus on keeping the wolves from the door, but will likely have perennial strugglers Emirates Club for company, as well as Dibba Al Fujairah and Ajman, who will surely struggle to emulate last season’s heroic eighth-placed finish.
Whatever happens at the bottom, it won’t be dull.
ROUND 1 FIXTURES:
14:55 Al Nasr v Ajman
15:00 Al Dhafra v Sharjah
17:30 Al Wasl v Dibba Al Fujairah
14:50 Emirates Club v Al Ain
14:50 Fujairah v Bani Yas
17:30 Shabab Al Ahli Dubai v Al Jazira
17:30 Al Wahda v Ittihad Kalba
What a season it is shaping up to be in the Arabian Gulf League if this frenetic Super Cup clash is any indication.
Al Wahda, last season’s Arabian Gulf Cup champions, toppled league and President’s Cup winners Al Ain, but only on a penalties after squandering a 3-0 lead.
Following the shock and bitter departure of Omar Abdulrahman to boyhood club Al Hilal this summer, the opening 45 minutes of action of the 2018/19 UAE season looked like the Boss’ death knell might have been sounded after last season’s league runners-up ruthlessly exposed the double winners.
As if pained by the way they meagrely fell off in pursuit of Zoran Mamic’s side in the AGL title race last season, Wahda’s blistering start against the Boss was simply breathtaking.
It was some statement from Laurentiu Reghecampf’s side, who wasted no time in making it, racing into a 2-0 lead inside eight minutes.
UAE defender Mohammed Ahmed got himself in a right mess as he tried to fool Sebastian Tagliabue with a backheel, but the veteran Argentine blocked his effort and then advanced into the box, feeding a sublime ball between the Al Ain defence for club legend Ismail Matar to calmly sidefoot home with four minutes gone.
More calamitous Cairo defending saw the Clarets double the lead three minutes later, although there was still plenty for Mourad Batna to do after he robbed Tsukasa Shiotani on the touchline.
The Moroccan attacker, who was excellent in his debut season last term, advanced and curled a sumptuous effort over Khalid Essa in the Al Ain goal, the ball crashing in off the underside of the crossbar.
The Boss looked totally bamboozled and fell 3-0 behind, only for the referee’s whistle to deny Batna a second.
The Al Ain goal was under constant attack and Essa brilliantly palmed away Mohamed Abdulbasit’s placed effort after more suicidal defending.
Abdulbasit was then involved as the AGL and President’s Cup champions were thrown a lifeline – the midfielder tugged Hussein El Shahat in the box and the referee pointed to the spot, though the Egyptian schemer’s tumble was a tad dramatic.
He was not punished though as Marcus Berg – who forced himself to the top of the AGL scoring charts last year with 25 goals plundered in 20 games, saw his spot kick stunningly tipped over by a brilliant Rashed Ali save.
And three minutes later, Wahda were 3-0 to the good following another fine counter-attacking move.
Matar chipped out to the right flank for the rampaging Batna. His first-time cross was almost perfect, right onto the head of Tagliabue who cleverly nodded past Essa who was moving the opposite way.
The second half though belonged to the Boss. They were instantly on the front foot and had clearly shaken off the rust that enveloped them in the opening 45 minutes.
One goal was pulled back just after the hour when El Shahat’s excellent through ball split the defence and found Berg, this time his finish was composed past Ali.
A second penalty provided a chance of redemption for the Swede 11 minutes later when one of the most experienced men on the field, one-time Lyon defender Hamdan Al Kamali, idiotically scythed down Caio after he latched onto a throw-in.
#الوحدة_بطل_كأس_سوبر_الخليج_العربي— Al Wahda FC الوحدة (@AlWahdaFCC) 25 August 2018
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But the responsibility was passed to veteran Ibrahim Diaky, and the 35-year-old confidently dispatched the spot kick past the desperate dive of Ali to make it 3-2.
The inevitable happened minutes later when a hopeful punt into the box wasn’t cleared properly by Mohamed Al Menhali whose header only fell to Caio. The Brazilian used the full-back to bend a beautiful shot into the far corner beyond Ali to bring the Boss back from the brink.
They were now the more likely winners and Diaky thundered the crossbar when he connected acrobatically with Caio’s dinked cross.
But no more goals were found so to penalties it went. Tagliabue saw his spot kick saved by Essa to give Mamic’s side the advantage, but Ali’s save from El Shahat and Caio’s wayward effort put the Clarets in command.
And after Al Kamali made amends, summer arrival Leonardo De Sousa stroked home to end a pulsating encounter. More of the same when the AGL season kicks off in a week’s time would be welcome.