The Arabian Gulf League is back and with some style too. A total of 31 goals were netted on the opening weekend, with huge wins for Sharjah and Al Wahda, while the game of the weekend was undoubtedly Al Jazira’s 5-4 victory at Shabab Al Ahli Dubai.
Elsewhere, Al Nasr – whose heavy summer recruitment has pegged them as one of the title challengers – were undone by Ajman, while new boys Fujairah and Bani Yas drew 1-1.
Here are our Picks of the Week from the opening weekend:
GOAL: MOHAMED BENYETTOU (FUJAIRAH)
The great Diego Maradona may be gone, but the Wolves are back in the big time and they proved on the opening day that they will not lack bite this season.
Algerian forward Benyettou scored their first goal back at the elite level and what an introduction, picking up a short corner and rifling a rocket of a shot into Fahad Al Dhanhani’s top left corner. Unstoppable.
PLAYER: KHALFAN MUBARAK (AL JAZIRA)
What a joy it is to see the young Emirati at the top of his game. Having claimed the AGL’s Best Young Player as Jazira swept to the title two seasons ago, Mubarak’s form nosedived in 2017/18. Now aged 23, it’s time for him to come into his own.
Perhaps the attacking midfielder was keenly aware of the need to step his game up as he was at his blistering best in a 5-4 thriller his side edged against Shabab Al Ahli.
And even though Ali Mabkhout’s hat-trick will hit headlines, it was his two assists and sublime free-kick winner that really stole the show.
COACH: AYMAN EL RAMADY (AJMAN)
A year ago, the Orange Brigade shone brightly on opening day with a narrow 2-1 defeat against champions Al Jazira – they deserved at least a point.
A year on they got what they deserved and caused a sensational stir by beating title contenders Al Nasr 1-0 – at Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum Stadium. So much for second season syndrome.
TALKING POINT: NO OMAR, NO PROBLEM
Al Ain began life without the talismanic Omar Abdulrahman quietly and without much trouble as Emirates Club were dispatched with minimum fuss in Ras Al Khaimah.
The prodigal son may be gone but the Boss have a more than able replacement in Hussein El Shahat, who scored the first and then supplied assists for Marcus Berg and Caio for the second and third goals.
Speaking of Berg, if he can get anywhere near his 25 goals from a year ago, with El Shahat and Brazilian winger Caio in support, the Garden City side should continue to flourish.
Egypt schemer Hussein EL Shahat got the ball rolling in just the second minute for Zoran Mamic’s side, Caio’s free-kick found Marcus Berg inside the box and when his shot was deflected, El Shahat’s low strike crept past goalkeeper Ahmad Al Shaji to put the away side in front.
The Falcons leveled in the 18th minute, as Bakary Kone’s accurate long through ball found Bernie Ibini Isei in space, who unleashed a powerful low shot from the edge of the box to beat Khalid Essa.
Al Ain responded quickly, with El Shahat turning from scorer to creator as he crossed for Berg, whose excellent header restored the Boss’ lead.
Berg won a penalty in the 37th minute after VAR was consulted, but after he scored the rebound following Al Shaji’s brilliant save, the spot kick was ordered to be retaken after the Swede caught the keeper accidentally with a boot. Al Shaji stood tall though and saved brilliantly again.
The hosts missed two glorious chances to equalise after the break as they twice hit the post, and less than a minute later the Boss claimed the points when Caio calmly converted El Shahat’s pass past Al Shaji.
Al Wahda got their campaign off to a fine start as they smashed promoted Ittihad Kalba 6-2 at Zayed Sports City Stadium.
It took the newly crowned Arabian Gulf Super Cup champions just nine minutes to kick-start their season, Tariq Ahmed opening the scoring.
Against the run of play, Kalba’s Yaqoub Al Baloushi bundled the ball home in the 15th minute to level.
South Korea defender Rim Chang-woo restored the hosts’ lead with a rifled a shot into the bottom corner just before the break.
Hamdan Al Kamali tapped in to make it 3-2 shortly after, but Kalba fought back again through Yaqoub Al Baloushi’s header.
Sultan Al Ghaferi’s second yellow card and subsequent red gave the new boys further hope in the 67th minute, but rather than hamper the hosts, they killed the game off with three late goals.
An own goal from Hamad Al Hammadi made it 4-2 before summer signing Yahya Al Ghassani and veteran marksman Sebastian Tagliabue gave the Clarets an emphatic victory.
In the other match from Friday, 10-man Bani Yas earned a 1-1 draw at Fujairah.
Both sides were promoted from the First Division League and the Wolves were given a huge advantage when Faisal Al Antali was sent off for a challenge on Humaid Ahmed in just the 17th minute.
Just three minutes later, Mohamed Benyettou’s curled strike gave his side the lead.
Pedro Conde earned a point for the visitors just after the hour mark, the Spaniard’s first touch put him through on goal before he found the bottom corner.
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.